Pittsburgh Peculiarities, Part One

Photo via Steelers.com

By Ivan Cole

It’s Bonus Week! You get a dose of reality from Ivan to mitigate my (partially) fictitious JuJu adventures…

Some additional observations at the halfway point of the 2017 season

Are the Steelers particularly vulnerable to ‘Trap’ games? Let’s examine the underlying assumption here.

In thinking this, we are essentially declaring that certain opponents cannot possibly win a contest against Pittsburgh unless the Steelers screw up and underperform. It must be and can only be that the Steelers play down to the level of their opponent, rather than the opponent, though objectively weaker, is capable of elevating their efforts to be competitive with an otherwise superior group.

If true, then under those circumstances the superior team got beat. That is why, as they say, they bother to play the games.

You leech the magic and majesty from every upset, from David and Goliath to the U.S. Olympic Hockey team versus the Soviets, from the 1960s Pirates and the New York Yankees to Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed, if it was just a matter of the favorites playing down to the level of the inferiors.

What makes this a peculiarly Pittsburgh problem is that the Steelers are almost always in the position of being the superior team. This is often not merely a perceptual issue. They were the favored team in seven out their first eight games, and they won the one game they were predicted to lose.

It should be noted that no one declared the sun had risen in the west because they had done so. Being in a contest where you are favored by three points because you were the home team and you happen to lose does not rise to the level of a trap game. I don’t think the folks in Kansas City considered Pittsburgh a trap game.

Here’s the problem—under limited circumstances anyone is capable of performing above and beyond the setpoint of their abilities, being in the zone. But it is not sustainable—otherwise that level would be the setpoint.

Because Pittsburgh is clearly identified and recognized as superior (the “standard,” so to speak) there is no sneaking up on anybody. To the contrary, opponents have had you circled in red on their schedules and have been aiming at you for months. A victory over you can make a season or program, can define a career. Just ask the 1960s Pirates.

It is impossible for the targeted team to match that level of over-the-top intensity week after week. You cannot, for example, expect the Steelers to bring the exact same level of emotional intensity to playing the Detroit Lions, a team that they are not likely to see again until 2021, as they would to playing the Cincinnati Bengals, a group they may well play up to a dozen times before they play the Lions again, and with whom they have a violent, contentious and high stakes history. Is there anyone on Detroit’s team whose name could amp up Roosevelt Nix more than Vontaze Burfict? And ask Vontaze about Willie Colon:

I am writing this during the runup to the Indianapolis game, and, let’s be honest, with the exception of a minority of hyper-paranoid fans, we are looking past these guys. It is human nature.

The secret and the key to greatness for teams in Pittsburgh’s position is figuring out how to prevail playing largely at and occasionally even below your own setpoint while facing a constant onslaught of opponents that may be performing beyond theirs. That is why Steelers coaches from Noll to Tomlin emphasize attention to the details of the work, as opposed to, say emotion. To prevail in a battle often involves choosing the ground upon which you will fight. That ground would be detail rather than emotion.

All of this might explain why some Steelers victories lack both a sense of dominance or spectacle. Perhaps that is the deeper meaning of what Tomlin is trying to communicate with his dismissal of style points. But oh how we all love those style points…


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