The Return of the Hombre: 5 Smoldering Questions on the Pittsburgh Steelers

FD31B63C-9465-422A-8750-E29B80695AE1By Hombre de Acero

After getting humiliated at home by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Pittsburgh Steelers waltzed into the living room of the Kansas City Chiefs and promptly proceeded to thoroughly dominate the NFL’s hottest team, best quarterback and top rusher for 3 and a half quarters. The Steelers of course defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, improving to 4-2 and they head back home to face the Cincinnati Bengals. But before this corner of Steelers Nation can focus on this latest AFC North show down, we first must answer these 5 Smoldering Question on the Steelers.

1. Carlos, an Argentine Steelers fan who lives above, commented to me that the NFL is so unpredictable that he’s stopped betting on games (and believe me, Carlos not betting is a big deal.) Six games into 2017, the Steelers are far from the only team to appear schizophrenic. To what do you attribute the NFL’s flirtation with manic depression, and is what’s happening in Pittsburgh just an extension of the general trend or is there something unique in the Steel City?

2. After standing on the sidelines for much of the season—on the Sundays he was lucky enough to dress—James Harrison entered the game on the final drive, and dropped Alex Smith on the penultimate play.

While T.J. Watt has done everything you could ask of a rookie, do you think James Harrison has done enough to warrant more playing time at Watt’s expense?

3. So Martavis Bryant requested a trade two weeks ago, as various outlets have confirmed, only to have Bryant face the cameras and tell us how happy he is in Pittsburgh. It says here that Bryant isn’t going anywhere, but if you’re Kevin Colbert, what offer tempts you?

4. The Pittsburgh defense currently leads the league in pass defense. This is partially due to the defensive line, but is certainly also due to the defensive backs. Curiously, the coaches haven’t changed and the scheme hasn’t changed—Pittsburgh still plays less man coverage than any team in the league, as per Pro Football Focus, in an article published yesterday. So why this sudden competence?

5. Count yours truly as one who openly suggested that Ben Roethlisberger was too dependent on Antonio Brown, so much that the analogy of Neil O’Donnell to Eric Green was rumbling around my head (oh how I date myself.) Makes sense.

Six weeks into the season Ben + Brown is the offense’s only consistent element.

That’s a common perception in Steelers Nation, but the numbers tell an interesting story.

Thus far this year, Brown has been Ben’s target 33% of the time, caught 35% of his passes, accounted for 46% of the team’s receiving yards and has 64.9% catch rate.

In 2015, when he was competing with Heath Miller, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward Bey and Bryant, Brown was the Steeler’s quarterback’s target 33% of the time, caught 34% of the team’s receptions and accounted for 38% of the team’s receiving yards with a 70.5% catch rate.

So…

…Is the Steelers offense, or perhaps Pittsburgh’s passing game, too dependent on Ben getting the ball to Brown?

10 comments

  • 1. More than anything, the CBA and the devolution of pre-season football. Limited contact in pre-season practices is mandated by the CBA, and nobody wants to risk injury to their starters in pre-season games. So every team is a mystery team on opening day, and it takes that much longer for them to sort things out. Don’t get started on what that means when you’re game-planning an opponent.

    2. Obviously.

    3. Right now, just about anything. Bryant says he didn’t request a trade, but Bryant lied to Roethlisberger last year and there’s absolutely no reason to believe him now. To borrow from a Chuck Noll observation, once you’re thinking about leaving town, you’ve already left. But the key is to hold your powder right now. You don’t even listen to anyone, unless it involves a really bad team offering to move up in the first round of next year’s draft. And that ain’t gonna happen, because Bryant is one toke away from the line that means he’s banned forever.

    4.First of all, because they couldn’t stop the run against Chicago and Jacksonville. Blake F. Bortles threw the damned ball ONE TIME in the second half, because they kept running for first downs while Ben was giving away interceptions like Oprah giving away cars. And if your opponents don’t have to pass and can run the ball down your throat, your pass defense numbers are likely to look pretty good. Yeah, they are better back there, and Haden is an upgrade and so is Wilcox, and Hilton is the find of the year, but the big factor is they haven’t really been tested week after week because of their inability to consistently stop the run.

    5. The big concern isn’t so much Ben’s choice of receivers, but his inability to throw anything more than ten yards with a degree of accuracy equal to past years. Six games is a helluva long time to get off to a slow start. The need to find and groom his successor has taken on a far greater sense of urgency.

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  • 1. What Homer said about limited live practice and preseason games but also IMO the non contact rules between coaches and players in the off season. I say that adds to mental errors. It is why work ethic and intelligence have grown in importance the last two drafts,

    2. I need to disagree with Homer on this one. It is easy to look great for a few plays against a tackle that played the whole game. The question is not somuch does 92 get more snaps as he gets used at the right moments. Use him with the same startegy as a relief pitcher when the game isoon the line or momentum ineeds to turn. Can he spell Dupree as well?

    3. At his salary it is a nonissue Wish the distraction would go away. He needs to know the better he does on the field and as a team mate the more he is worth.

    4. What Homer said about the numbers being skewed. But I will say this I dont instantly get an ulcer seeing two runs, incomplete pass and punt just before the two minute warning like I used to.

    5. Homer’s answer here again. The real question is why the ten yard accuracy? Does Ben have some accumulated damage that accounts for this? And does more throwingmake it worse? Or does Ben want (put in) his eight hours then go home? Being on the same wave length with others takes practice time and repititions.

    Is there too much dependence onBrown? I will say a little bit yes and speculate Haley not calling the right combination of routes. is a factor.

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  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    1) Lots of injuries (and illnesses) it seems plus inconsistency between officiating crews means what is “legal” one week isn’t the next.
    2) Giving James more playing time, to keep him sharp, isn’t a horrible idea but Watt needs time to learn and grow into the role as well. A nice balance is required.
    3) The only reason I would trade Bryant during the season would be for a 1st rounder or a player that is desperately needed to fill a hole when some key player goes down for the season. Otherwise I would give him playing time and hope the he gets his groove back with Ben. The off-season is the time to consider trading Bryant and I wouldn’t do it for less than a second rounder.
    4) A healthy front seven (Watt doesn’t hurt either) and an improved secondary (trades and personal growth) is all the reason needed for the difference.
    5) Other players need to get the ball but they need to a) be open, b) be seen and accurately thrown to by Ben and c) catch the ball. Until those things happen, the Steelers will be too dependent on the Ben to AB connection.

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  • Hombre de Acero – great questions, as always, and welcome back!

    1) Clearly the issue is as Homer J. and Steelerstyle outlined. Not too much can be done about it until the next CBA…which may actually make things worse (owners going for more money…i.e., games…and offering even less required effort from the players). It won’t change until fans stop going to or watching early season games.

    2) No, but he has at Bud DuPree’s expense. Bring in Deebo at ROLB more, and move Watt to LOLB when that occurs. Watt is smart enough to handle film study, etc. for both sides, played at LOLB some in pre-season, and Bud certainly needs a wake-up call. His one pass-rushing move (flying to a spot 15 yards behind the QB’s 7-step drop), isn’t going to make it.

    3) Straight-up for Carson Wentz? LOL!

    4) Ditto to Homer J.’s response.

    5) Yes, but…you need to go with what works. Too much inconsistency from his other receivers. Ben’s rep is that Steelerstyle’s comment may be the reason. No one reports that Ben works extra hard in the off-season, the pre-season, or during the season to get into sync with his receivers.

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  • 1. There’s an entire article on NFL.com at the moment about this very thing. Other than the Browns, whose problems apparently go much deeper than can be fixed by years of successive top-of-the-draft picks, we are seeing the dream of league parity fulfilled. And yet I’m guessing Homer is correct, and as the season progresses the cream will rise to the top, except perhaps in cases where a team unduly dependent upon one player (like, say, Green Bay) loses that player for the season.

    2. I think that despite what Harrison might like it makes a tremendous amount of sense to preserve his 700-year old body (in football years) for just the right moment. As for COSF’s suggestion about switching him out for Bud Dupree, I wouldn’t move a guy who has played his entire career to the other side and expect him to be equally effective. But here’s a thought—Dupree has certainly not, to this point, lived up to the pre-season expectations. Perhaps it would make sense to occasionally move Watt over to Dupree’s spot, because IIFC they did a bit of that in training camp and Watt did just fine from the left side. That said, the coaches certainly have a better idea of what will and won’t work than I do. That’s why they are working over on the South Side and I’m blogging in my kitchen. (My mother doesn’t have a basement…)

    3. It would have to be an offer only a complete idiot would make, because the Steelers have Bryant for this year and next on a rookie 4th round contract, and from the standpoint of the trading team, they lose whatever they’ve offered, and could lose Bryant as well, as Homer notes. So unless the Browns front office thinks that having Bryant would be a nice pairing with Josh Gordon, it’s not happening.

    4. Homer has a point. But I personally think it is a certain amount of luck. Joe Haden fell in their laps, not just because Cleveland is Cleveland but because he chose to come to Pittsburgh despite a great deal of interest (and possibly better offers) elsewhere. The Steelers took a huge leap of faith on Artie Burns. This is in large part, in my opinion, because Mike Tomlin loved what he saw in Burns as a person, was intrigued and impressed by his vow to his mom to raise his brothers, and was willing to pay above market rate to make sure they got him.

    This is not entirely speculation on my part, and furthermore not unprecedented. If you listened to all of Villanueva’s press conference after the whole anthem thing in Chicago, you heard him say nobody else was calling him, and he was under no illusions—the Steelers called him because Mike Tomlin was intrigued by his personal story. Although admittedly picking up a cheap free agent is hardly in the same class as risking your first round pick. However, anybody think Burns was overdrafted now?

    And another piece of luck was seeing the potential in Mike Hilton, who was cut by not only the Jaguars but by the Evil Genius himself, Bill Belichick. He’s made the Senquez Golson pick (which didn’t work out not through any fault in the assessment or in the coaching, but sheer bad luck) disappear in our rear view mirrors.

    Anybody who doesn’t think there is a substantial element of luck in these things isn’t paying attention. I think Belichick’s system is a way to minimize the effect, because it increases the pool of players who can work out at least reasonably well.

    5. I’m going to skirt the actual question and note that the puzzling thing this season is not that Brown gets the ball so much, it is why the other impressive weapons on the offense aren’t making more out of their opportunities. In JuJu’s case that’s just because he’s young and raw, and I expect him to show more and more. But I think that because of Ben and Brown’s almost telepathic connection, Brown can make things work that the others can’t. How many times have we seen him sense Ben in trouble and run to where Ben can get him the ball? And that being the case, and until such time as the others start really consistently catching and/or fighting for the ball, a Ben Roethlisberger who is not, at least so far, his old self, is going to look for the guy he trusts the most. It also makes me feel that despite his antics and the drama surrounding them that I could very well do without, the Steelers invested their money in the right place by paying AB. Perhaps they wouldn’t have if they were already developing a young replacement for Ben.

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  • 1. How about this? It’s the overpaid star system. Even a bad GM can write a huge check and hire a guy everyone knows is the best at his position. Great teams have several of those big stars and that’s what makes them great. Contracts run out, crazy salaries are offered, sometimes the stars take the cash and walk away from a good team to a bad one. So bad teams have big stars and big stars can sometimes win games all by themselves, or almost. But those same big stars have to play with a bunch of rookies and scrubs who are, relatively speaking, making not much money to make up for that big paycheck he’s getting. So even when he’s playing well, he’s playing with others who may not be and, well…anything can happen. Is that bad? Every week there are all kinds of hopes and dreams up in the air, and just as many crashes to earth.

    And then there are injuries. A big star gets hurt, and it seems to happen every week, and there goes the season.

    I don’t entirely believe all of the above but it’s a theory no one else mentioned yet. 🙂

    2. Tomlin knows exactly what he’s doing with Deebo. And Deebo knows it. When the camera panned over the field on Sunday and I saw him in position, I thought, “Holy crap.” I’m guessing a few Chiefs thought the same thing. He’s a truly intimidating sight even before he moves. That’s a weapon in itself. The team shouldn’t waste it on garden variety snaps.

    I think Bud will be fine, by the way.

    3. Apparently Bryant would like to play in the NBA. How about a trade for LeBron? The only part of Ohio Ben doesn’t own. He might even make a good QB.

    Seriously, no trade, no more talk of trades. He and Ben need to get their act together and everyone will be happy.

    4. Ike Taylor probably knows. He was all afire this week on Dave Dameshek’s podcast about why the Steelers D was working. I watched about 10 seconds, had to go back to work and haven’t gotten back to it. Apparently he showered love on Hilton and Tomlin’s preseason work. Ike’s a gem. I believe every word he says.

    5. I’m with Rebecca on this one. (Hooray! And, btw, Rebecca, your last 2 game summaries were so good I didn’t read anyone else’s. So you can do both the agony of defeat and the…you know.) AB is the one Ben trusts. Because he’s brilliant? Yes. But that’s not all. Because he and Ben have that 10,000 hours of practice together it takes to be an expert according to Malcolm Gladwell? Could be. See Answer 3. Put Bryant and Ben in the practice facility, lock the doors and don’t open them again until they can find each other blindfolded. Or something like that. THe same goes for everyone else. They need to man up, do their work, maybe evem (gasp) start hounding Ben for the ball until he gives it to them. More often. Maybe that’s what it takes to earn Ben’s trust. He’s actually odder than AB if you just look at what he does on the field.

    OTOH, AB’s the best in the business so I suspect any QB who had him would be “too dependent” on him. So now I’m going to disagree with Rebecca. (!) Not really that many antics or that much drama for what he is, and he would give any QB in the league an enviable weapon.

    Earthling

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    • Love your take on Deebo. And I have already watched the Ike Taylor segment twice, and would watch it for hours if I would let myself. The joy just radiates from him

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  • Also, not an answer but someone else’s take on Ben as a response to 5. I don’t know if I can do the link but it’s SI, a guy named Benoit and Ben “evolving” if you’re searching.

    https://www.si.com/nfl/video/2017/10/10/ben-roethlisberger-evolving-qb

    Earthling

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