At the Half: Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Second Quarter Report
Photo via Steelers.com
By Ivan Cole
The last time I attempted to write something for Going Deep was right after the Jacksonville game. The piece was sullen and dark, involving terms like “hubris” and “ego”, but before I could get very far I was struck down. Maybe it was the spirit of Dan Rooney (more about him in a separate post). Whatever the source I have been on the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP, writing only) from then until now. Just in time to reflect (as opposed to just reacting) on the second quarter of the season.
“Matching the first quarter record could be a considerable achievement. 6-2 at the Bye would look really good.” That’s how the first quarter report concluded. But you know what? It’s actually better than “really good”. Now, I know that many of you reading don’t believe that. So, before I make my case let’s get something out of the way.
Steeler Nation snowflakes
Growing up, I developed a hatred for Yankee fans. And Lakers fans, and Celtic fans. In short fans of teams with crazy long runs of competitive success. Until recently I chalked it up to pure green-eyed jealousy. Pittsburgh teams in those days may have a highly competitive team once a decade, a championship caliber team once a generation.
However, upon reflection, what I believe I was reacting to are the insidious effects of privilege and fragility. For years the biggest challenge facing some of these great franchises was where they were going to find space to hang their championship banners. Yet through it all their fans came off as ungracious complainers.
That disease, a plague, has infected Steeler Nation to various extents. As Mike Prisuta pointed out the other day, there are portions of Steeler Nation (hopefully not a majority, but certainly a much larger cohort than is healthy) that honestly believe that the Steelers should not just be winning Lombardis every single year, but should win every single game as well, with anything less meaning that something is amiss. They (we?) will claim it is perfectionism. No. It’s entitlement.
Consider our last opponent, Detroit. Here is a franchise that hasn’t won a championship since Dwight Eisenhower was President. SIXTY YEARS!! The Steelers are a team whose success most other teams aspire to—a red circled date on their schedule. With a good coach, one of the better quarterbacks in the league, an extra week of preparation for an (for them) uncommon primetime platform, and augmented by several blown opportunities by their opponents, they still couldn’t get it done because Pittsburgh figured out a way to win anyway.
A normal person, so one would presume, would be celebrating three heroic goal line stands, a rookie and the youngest player in the league having a performance that would garner player of the week honors and the team being universally declared the class of the conference heading into the Bye and the midpoint of the season. Good times, right? But others can only see too many yards surrendered, too many dropped passes or overthrown balls, the offense once again did not reach 30 points (they promised!), a malcontented wide receiver and an under-utilized 500-year-old man.
Metaphorically speaking, you have one person, homeless, who is forced to scrounge in garbage cans to avoid starvation, next to another who loudly complains that their filet mignon was improperly cooked and that they should have had the lobster. My friends, they don’t hate us for our Lombardis, but rather because too many of us (present company included) behave like entitled jerks.
But don’t listen to me. Prisuta also noted how the team’s present circumstances has impacted..
Haden is in full died-and-gone-to-Heaven mode. Most recently, he and 49ers refugee Vance McDonald helpfully noted that the land of 6-2 is not a destination frequently visited in the NFL. In an earlier interview he marveled at being on a team that has the capacity and belief that it can win any time it takes the field. Being still relevant in November? What a concept. Now let’s examine what is so great about Pittsburgh’s current situation. [I have to add here that my son told me to listen to the “Sights and Sounds” video on Steelers.com for the Detroit game and particularly note what Joe Haden said. I did, and it stunned me. Haden noted that he had never played a Sunday night game. That really brings it home, doesn’t it?]
Are you entertained?
At the end of the day that is the point of the exercise. Yes, watching them can be a frustrating experience, but it is why we are frustrated that is fascinating. You want superstars in their prime? And rookie phenomes? And young emerging talent rising into greatness? Solid line play on both sides of the ball? Big splash plays on both sides of the ball? Solid coaching?
The 2017 Steelers can maddingly underachieve at times, but are still being recognized in many corners as the best team in football (and in others as the second best in Pennsylvania). When watching the Bengals game with Homer, we both noted that it was such good football. The Kansas City game was like that as well. We are being treated on a fairly consistent basis to the type of play that causes us to count the days to training camp in March, April and May. Compelling, competitive and best of all, they won all the games we would prefer them to win.
They swept their division match ups and gaining a stranglehold on the title. They played the team recognized as the best and dominated them in their home stadium, establishing they have the capacity to beat anyone anywhere. You don’t want to miss watching this team play. And we’re pretty certain we haven’t seen their best work yet.
Tony Dungy declared Pittsburgh the most complete team in the conference, and likely the league. They are solid in both the breadth and depth of their talent. There aren’t any Cam Thomas types on this squad. The outcomes from free agent moves and trades are uneven, the jury being out on McDonald and Coty Sensabaugh. On the other hand, Joe Haden, Tyson Alualu and J.J. Wilcox appear to be solid wins. And OMG, Mike Hilton!
The Haden situation deserves special attention. I have contended that the environment created by head coach Mike Tomlin could prove an advantage in the marketplace. If money is your guide, Haden had better offers than Pittsburgh (Martavis, please take note), and chose the Steelers to the delight of all parties.
Then there is the blossoming of previous investments. For example, the jury is in on Al Villanueva. As spectacular as the play of others has been, Chris Hubbard gets my vote for MVP of the second quarter. He and B.J. Finney are unnoticed when they are playing, the best compliment you can give to an offensive lineman. Hard to criticize Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo or Vince Williams these days, though some have tried. And what about L.T. Walton?
Then there are the anticipated second year leaps from the likes of Javon Hargrave, Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Tyler Matakevich. And then something developed that I don’t think many people anticipated. We patted the Steelers brain trust on the back for the success of the 2016 draft/free agent class. The top three picks (Burns, Davis and Hargrave) all became solid starters on an established playoff team. And it was noted how hard that is to do given Pittsburgh perennial low draft position. So, who thought the 2017 draft class (so far) would be better?
Cancer survivor and local college star James Connor, rocket scientist Joshua Dobbs, JJ Watts’ kid brother T.J., and a 20-year-old named JuJu were all great human-interest storylines. And, so the thinking went, if only one of these guys could give us as much as we got the first year from Javon or Sean then we would be in great shape.
Well, little T.J. has kept Deboo off the field and is an emerging star. Sweet! And then JuJu comes along, knocks T.J. out of the headlines, Martavis to margins, and is arguably more entertaining than Antonio Brown. What happens when he’s old enough to buy a drink? (How do you recognize JuJu’s bike? The training wheels). Now lie to me and tell me you saw this coming. Because of this a roster spot has become precious (significant contributors from previous seasons Jordan Dangerfield and Fitz Toussaint are languishing on the practice squad), a helmet on game days even more so, and playing time is life and death.
This fact alone would seem to be at the root of whatever discontent is currently simmering on the team. And this situation is exaserbated by the best news of all.
This team is healthy
The biggest injury concern for the entire first half of the season is Marcus Gilbert’s hamstring and Stephon Tuitt’s sore back. Really? Whatever rituals you are into, please don’t stop. So, this is how different things have become. One of the members of the 2017 draft class, cornerback Cameron Sutton, has been chilling on IR, but is now all better and attempting to return to the team. Sutton has two problems. The first is trying to climb aboard a moving train, difficult enough. The second is that currently, there really aren’t any seats on the train.
When he went on IR everyone was hoping to see him back mid-season because he showed such great promise and pass defense is the glaring weakness standing between the Steelers and glory. Except, it’s not.
Until this past Sunday the Steelers were the best in the league, which must have been annoying as hell to those ‘yes, but’, entitled snowflakes who imagined riding that train all the way to Tomlin’s pink slip. So, here’s the question—if Sutton manages to board the moving train, who gives up playing time for him? Mike Hilton? William Gay? Joe Haden? Sutton may have to Tanya Harding someone. That’s what it’s come down to these days.
“Good times. Really. But if you really want something to worry about. Indianapolis is next. Trap game, right?