5 Smoldering Questions on the Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 12

NFL: DEC 04 Giants at SteelersThe Green Bay Packers arrived in Pittsburgh as two-touchdown underdogs and, in keeping with the tone and tenor of everything thus far this season, the game would of course go down to the wire as the Steelers pulled out a 31-28 win over the Packers thanks to Chris Boswell’s record-tying field goal.

Next week brings the Patrio… er um, sees the Steelers take the road to Cincinnati to face off against their AFC North rivals, the Bengals. But before Steelers Nation can cross its fingers and clutch its rosary beads ahead of their next encounter with Vontaze Burfict we must first resolve these 5 Smoldering Questions on the Steelers.

1. Ok, let’s begin by addressing Mike Tomlin’s decision to acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely that the Steelers and Patriots are the class of the AFC and that their match up with the at Heinz Field month will likely determine the playoff pecking order.

First, do you think Tomlin’s departure from “coach speak” either indicates a lack of focus or a lack of respect towards the Bengals and Ravens?

Second, regardless of your feelings on the first part of this question, do you worry that Tomlin might be tempting fate by engaging in a little of what Art Rooney Sr. might have termed “Putting on the dog?”

Defend your answer.

2. Martavis Bryant saw his first duty as a kick returner on Sunday night and provided the Steelers longest kick return of the season. Mike Tomlin has indicated he might get more chances there. Do you think it is wise for the Steelers to risk their defacto number 2 receiver on return duties?

3. A week ago I invited readers elsewhere to vote on game ball winners for the Steelers win over the Titans. Given that the Steelers offense had exploded for 40 points, Todd Haley’s name was on the ballot, and multiple votes were allowed. You can see the results here:

While this sample is in no way representative of the rest of Steelers Nation, do you agree with the decision of the voters to give Todd Haley a gigantic collective cold shoulder?

4. Since Joe Haden left the game against the Colts the Steelers defense has given up touchdown passes of 61 yards, 60 yards, 75 yards, 39 yards, 54 yards and 55 yards. Or, in slightly more sophisticated mathematical terms, the Keith Butler’s boys have allowed one 57 yard touchdown pass in ever 27 and half minutes of play. (In truth, the average is worse for the Steelers, since the first bomb came at the tail end of the 2nd quarter against the Colts.)

What’s going on and is this a problem that can be fixed if and when Joe Haden returns to the lineup?

5. A commonly held assumption is that the Steelers draft outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback, yet neither Bud Dupree nor T.J. Watt is close to leading the Steelers in sacks.

However, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo argues that the Keith Butler is using the duo as much in coverage as he is as pass rushers.

While this makes a certain sense, and Fittipaldo’s article is extremely well reported, we must also keep in mind that in 2015 and 2016 Steelers Nation was treated to continual leaks from the coaching staff about how Jarvis Jones was doing extremely well in run defense and coverage despite his low sack totals.

Do you think something similar might be at work here, particularly with Bud Dupree who is now in his third season?

You know the drill from here on out. Use only No. 2 dark pencils but do not use Faber Castells. You must show work to get full credit and looking at your neighbor’s paper is not only allowed, its encouraged.

Have at it.


  • 1. i loved Tomlin’s comments because i choose to believe that they weren’t just haphazard and “accidentally honest.” i have a hard time imagining Mike Tomlin – a successful nfl coach – sitting in a room with multiple tv cameras and lights and mics and makeup people, and forgetting that what he says will be heard by everyone. he is usually excessively measured with his comments, and i believe he was this time too. i don’t think he gives a rat’s rear end about how you or i or espn or anyone else takes it…i think he cares how his team perceives his boldness and confidence, and what that inspires in them.

    2. by all means, yes, give that man a chance to succeed. to my eyes, martavis looked FAST for one of the first times all season.

    3. everyone hates Haley, yada yada yada. if the survey had been completed by players and the results were the same, then that would be something. as it is, it’s a small sample size of standard narrative-buying fans who are not willing to believe that coaching a professional football team might just be pretty challenging and above their pay grade.

    4. it’s hard to deny those facts. my eyes seem to be telling me that artie burns is a big part of the problem here, too. get well soon, JH.

    5. i have certainly seen TJ in coverage a good bit. i haven’t noticed that as much with Bud. but i am absolutely willing to admit that i don’t know as much about the defensive plan (on a micro scale for each game, and on a macro scale for the whole season) as the coaches so I’m willing to suspend judgment a bit and trust the process.


    • I’m not the world’s biggest Haley fan, although I’ll acknowledge, as has been pointed out below, that his job was to keep Ben from getting killed while still allowing Ben to be Ben and he’s done that. IF you look at the numbers, across any number of measures, Ben is better under Haley than under Arians, except for his road record, (but I don’t think you can lay that on Haley.)

      I’ve been known to rip into Steelers offensive coordinators before, specifically Joe Walton and then Ray Sherman (and Gilbride, to a lesser extent), but the number of “fans” who seem to think that they REALLY could do a better job as offensive coordinator is nothing short of amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

  • 1. He was in a one on one interview with his mentor who he admires and respects. It’s understandable that he let his guard down a little. He was only voicing the obvious, that the Steelers and Patriots should be the top two teams in the AFC come playoff time.

    2. I think it’s a good idea to have MB return the few kick offs that aren’t touch backs. He gives us a good chance at a big return and it’s another way of getting him on the field.

    3. Coaches should never be in the running for a game ball. They aren’t playing the game on the field. Besides, Ben changes Haley’s play at the line fairly often.

    4. The bigger problem is Artie Burns’ missed assignments allowing open receivers down the field. Sensabaugh is no Haden but until Artie makes sure he’s in the right position every play, the risk for big plays won’t end.

    5. We finally have down lineman that can pressure the QB. Blitzing Williams, Hilton and Davis has been successful and Watt has shown the athleticism to be effective in coverage. Dupree doesn’t pressure the passer like everyone hoped he would, but he is still an upgrade over Jarvis.


    • Interesting points.

      Let me add something here in terms of the “Game Ball Worthiness” of coaches.

      In general I agree and in general they don’t get included as candidates unless there’s something, such as a critical play call, that warrants it.

      In this context, Haley was included as an option both because of the offensive production, plus the fact that he was going up against LeBeau who is not only one of the greatest defensive minds in the game, but also someone who is intimately familiar with the STeelers offense.

      However, perhaps the voters in question felt the same way — only players should get game balls, which is fine.


  • 1. The elephant in the room is that Steelers Nation has an unhealthy and fearful obsession with New England. This is the first and only time I can recall since the hiring of Chuck Noll that an opponent has gotten the better of this community psychologically. One only has to reference the Cincinnati Bengals whose hatred for the Steelers is so poisoned by fear that they reliably self sabotage more often than not, seek comfort in conspiracy theories, etc.

    This, and the experience of having actually won championships are the Patriots only advantage. They are neither physically superior or innately smarter, but they have Pittsburgh, and frankly the rest of the league intimidated by their mystique. We (and here I mean all of us) have never obsessed like this with the Ravens, or the Raiders in the 70s. Truth is we have been looking past the Bengals and Baltimore all season. And there is no way that this attitude hasn’t seeped into the consciousness of the players. Tomlin, in my view, is directly addressing the most likely danger facing this team going forward, that they will doubt that they are the better team.

    2. We risk AB on punts and JuJu on kickoffs. Why not Martavis?

    3. I didn’t see Tomlin or Keith Butler nominated. Game balls generally are for players, not coaches.

    4. Wouldn’t put this all on the presence or absence of Haden. One defensive player making a mental error can have catastrophic consequences.

    5. A lot of the pass rushing burden has successfully been turned over to Hayward, Tuitt and Hargrave. Apples and oranges.


    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      5. Does it seem like a lot of pressure now is coming between the tackles or from blitzing DBs? Obsessing on the Patriots a bit, but isn’t that how teams put Brady on his back? Maybe I am remembering incorrectly.


      • The Steelers have long gotten pressure with the corner blitz, but you are not wrong. LeBeau starting turning Heyward loose his last year in Pittsburgh, and Butler continued it. The reason it seems like more is because Heyward has been so dominant.

        The way to beat Brady is to keep shoving a guard or the center into his lap. Once you hit him a few times, he becomes human.


    • Great points about the Steelers obsession with the Patriots. Going into the AFC Championship game, there was a lot of talk about how the personnel from past playoff meetings was largely new. I thought that was a healthy approach. Still, the result were what they were.

      I might suggest that the Raiders seemed to have the same type of obsession with the Steelers to the point where Al Davis put the 1976 AFC Championship score on one of the sides of their Super Bowl rings.

      Which is ironic, because in a lot of ways, the Tom Brady Era Patriots sort of occupy the same perch that the Steelers of the 70’s occupy, and the Cowher-Tomlin era Steelers are sort of in the same place that the Raiders were in.

      Regardless, I agree with the analysis that Tomlin knew exactly what he was doing.


  • 1. Agree with other comments the MT knew what he was doing and this was intended to be motivational for his players. I would also remind everyone that he prefaced his comments with something like, “if we take care of our business between now & then”. It was certainly a personal risk for him to say it because he looks foolish if the team doesn’t step up but a good leader is never afraid to put himself out there. While I have been disappointed with some of his decisions in the past, such as his clock management for example, I don’t doubt for a second that he understands this generation of player and knows how to motivate them.

    2. I like trying all options during the course of the season to see if you can find something. There is certainly some risk to put him out there but my feeling is that Martavis needs to be a part of the teams success if they are going to succeed in the long term. Getting him involved in as many ways as possible is worth the risk in my mind, especially given how few kicks actually get returned these days.

    3. I would not generally consider a coach for a game ball just as I would not immediately assume that its the coaches fault when the team performs badly in a particular game. I have a longer term view of a coaches performance such as whether the offense we now run helps keep our 35 year old QB out of harms way more than it did when the game plan was to look for chunk plays on most downs? Do we see the development of the team continue throughout the course of the season so that they are peaking at playoff time rather than in week 1? Do we see the offensive game plan seem more tailored to the opponent each week building on the learning experiences of weeks past?

    I think Todd Haley has checked a lot of boxes for me but I would not say that a game ball is the appropriate acknowledgment of his performance as a coach. That goes to the players who are simply executing better than they were earlier in the season. I reference Ben’s performance lately. Is it that he is throwing the ball significantly better or is it that the receivers are now making some catches that they didn’t earlier in the season? I think we all agree it’s both but Haley wasn’t the one making them miss the catches early or causing Bell to be a little off the mark early. He did however have the patience to develop game plans and handle the play calling, along with Ben, to allow the team time to gel.

    4. I’m not all that surprised that our young corners came off the Titan’s game a little over confident in their execution. Mariota made them all look like the second coming of Ron Woodson so seeing them bite on double moves after Green Bay showed a simple shallow passing attack early is not that surprising. What will concern me is if AJ Green or any other Bungle gets behind them this week. I would like to think they will learn form this. Sadly, I’m not sure I see them tackling better any time soon but would love to be wrong.

    5. I have the misfortune of living in New England and so I’ve had to endure a very close view of the Cheatriot’s success. That said, I’ve also seen those rare occasions when they were beaten. Brady is as immobile a QB as they come. Pressure up the middle is what affects his accuracy and performance. I choose to believe that this is one of the measures that the coaching staff has allowed to develop to take advantage of Tuit & Hargrave’s ability to do just that. We shall see!


    • I love your idea on #5. They have brought a LOT of pressure up the middle. Even with Vince Williams. I’d love to believe this was intentional with Brady in mind.

      The Patriots, because of Brady, are perfectly built to beat the Steelers, and if we want to change that, we’re going to have to find a way to adapt.


      • I agree that it was in part because of Brady, mainly because of other quarterbacks copying Brady’s style. There are a lot more quarterbacks that get rid of the ball quickly and the outside pass rush just isn’t as effective anymore. That’s why LeBeau started rushing Heyward, the outside linebackers just weren’t getting pressure. IIRC, he said at that time that they had to try to get pressure from somewhere.


  • Great questions.

    1. I’ll double down on previous comments. But I still think Tomlin did this on purpose. If the Steelers can’t handle the “distraction” this is causing – they won’t handle the distractions of Super Bowl Week!

    A few weeks ago Dungy said that the Steelers were struggling with young players who were essentially showing their youth. I can’t help but wonder if Tomlin believes his team is losing focus with their winning streak, and this was a reminder that none of this matters – it only matters if we take care of business (Patriots at home) and take care of business in the Playoffs (likely Patriots in AFC championship game).

    I believe teams that win championships are teams that are “battle tested.” There’s not much “battle” in this year’s schedule – but there has been a lot of strange (for the Steelers) adversity in off field stuff and close games. Maybe Tomlin WANTS his players to feel the pressure so they will be prepared when it counts. **adjusts tin foil hat**

    3. While I am not always a fan of Haley’s plays – why do we run empty backfield on 1st and goal at the 5? His number one duty when he came here was to get Ben out of Arians offense so that Ben would live long enough to retire. He’s done that. How many QB’s have made the transition from scrambler to pocket passer like Ben? Game ball, no. Good coach, yes.

    5. I think Bud Dupree could be better – but I think he’s doing what the coaches are asking him to do. Both Watt and Dupree drop back a lot. I also have noticed that Bud is clearly staying in a zone to contain his end of the line of scrimmage. I’d love to see Bud collapse the pocket more by moving the right guard or tackle. And because he doesn’t he seems to get pushed out of the play. But had Burns not had a facemask penalty, Dupree would have picked up another sack against the packers.


    • Toronto Steeler Fan

      3. I read about this on Steelers Depot, in an article where they analyzed the KC Chiefs’ red zone offense, which at the time was excellent (in week 6). The logic goes like this. It is very tough to run the ball when you are close to the goal line. Everyone says bring in the big heavies and punch it in. When you do that, the defense puts everyone in the box, and punching it in gets really difficult. Lots of defenders in a very compressed area. Going empty set does the opposite for you – it maximally spreads out the defense in that confined space and gives you more options to work with. I know that’s not a comforting explanation, but that’s the reality of the situation, and it’s why red zone offense is a hard thing.

      BTW, their assessment of the KC Chiefs’ red zone offense (esp. their inside-the-five offense) was that they were extremely well coached and creative in this area. They used a lot of subtle pre-snap change of positioning and timing to disguise their intentions and to get the defense off-balance (literally) right before the snap, to give them a timing advantage or a numbers mismatch on a lot of their plays. These were the sorts of things that amateurs like me miss when watching the game or even replays, but the experts can point out (like how a tight end moves off the line and then moves back, but he ends up a foot to the left of where he started out when the ball is snapped…that kind of subtle).


  • 1. Tomlin plans and chooses his words with extreme care. It is possible that he let his guard down while talking to his mentor and great friend. But it is also possible that he and Dungy spoke before the interview and Tomlin knew the question was coming. It may have been an intentional attitude reset, like when Chuck Noll told the 1974 Steelers, “the best team in pro football is right here in this room.”
    Not sure it was the wisest thing to do, however. We all remember “unleashing hell in December.” That’s something best left forgotten.

    2. You had your answer to that one his first kickoff return Sunday night. He’s a weapon. Use him.

    3. The players win the game. The only time you give a coach the game ball is if he’s retiring or he’s returned from battling a terrible ailment or had some family crisis. Coaches can lose games for you, but it’s the players who have to win them.

    4. We hated it when Coach Dad had them play back and bend and bend and bend and not break. Well, now they’re doing more man stuff and being more aggressive. But what’s happening here is that we’re halfway into the season, and other teams have lots of film to study and they’ve picked up tendencies. Especially with Burns, but with all of them, Don’t take Homer’s word for it. Read Tomlin’s lips. Immediately after Burns got burned last week, there was a shot of him on the sidelines, looking angry and disgusted and saying, either “looks like” or “just like on the f**king film.” So, yeah, they not only miss Haden big time, but other teams have studied game films of the gambling DB;s and have managed to figure out when they’re likely to try to jump a route, etc;

    5. This is a complicated answer. First, if this team is going to the Super Bowl, it’s probably gonna have to beat NE and you don’t do that with an outside rush. You rush up the middle, right in Brady’s face. Fittipaldo is right that the Steelers have changed their blitzing and coverage patterns, and have been using the OLB’s more in pass coverage. And they’ve been quite good at it, especially Watt. Putting more pressure up the middle – as they are doing – means fewer sacks and less time in the backfield for the OLB’s. It also means more sacks for the front three and the ILB’s. That said, Dupree has had his moments, but his been maddeningly inconsistent. However, there is no way they’re going to bad mouth him. They’ll say he’s fine and he’s doing his job when he has a good day. And they’ll say the same when he disappears for a half.


    • Yeah, I saw Tomlin after that touchdown pass. I thought he was asking “What the f__ happened?” While Burns may have been at fault there, I suspect this was more of a blown assignment by him and many others as there was NO ONE even close to the receiver.


      • When you have a moderate to severe hearing loss and wear hearing aids, you learn to lip read. The last words of Tomlin’s sentence – which you can watch over on Steelersdepot – are effing film. Not 100% positive, but pretty damned sure.


    • I too thought of the “Raise hell in December” moment, which came at exactly the same point on the calendar. However, I think that was something that Tomlin did indeed say spontaneously. I don’t think he let his guard down. I think his comments to Dungy were intentional.

      As to whether or not he should have said them…?

      I always prefer coaches and players not make those kinds of comments. Although I hated the team, I grew up in DC during the first Joe Gibbs era, and the party line was “….Really, we don’t know what to expect,” even if they were playing someone like the Cowboys, Eagles or Giants for the third time in the season.

      With that said, the Steelers ability to stop giving up TD’s that go for over half of the field once a half is what is going to define their season, not Tomlin acknowledging the obvious about the Patriots.


      • Regarding Tomlin’s comments – I think they were well calculated – he knew the team would NEVER look past divisional games with Cincy or Baltimore. At the same time, he is showing his confidence in his team and also refocusing them by mentioning “if we take care of our business”.


  • 1) I really don’t think Tomlin showed any disrespect to the Bengals or Ravens with his comments. He did preface his comments with “if we take care of business” as Jim W stated above. Also the Steelers at 9-2 can reasonably be expected to win one of the two games, which puts the game with the Patriots for the top seed (at that time.) I also agree with everyone who said that they believe that he knew exactly what he was saying. Can’t really add much too what everyone else said.

    2) They’ve been risking their #2 receiver on kickoffs. Bryant is pretty clearly #3 and there is nothing wrong with a #3 receiver returning kicks. I really don’t have a problem with a #2 receiver either, with as few as are returned these days. Buy Kickoff returns seem made for Bryant, he can get up to speed on the return and that speed is deceptive.

    3) Game balls should be for players. Haley had a good game plan for that game, just as he seems to for other games when the players execute at a high level. It’s kind of funny how bad his game plans get when Ben is off target, the receivers are dropping balls and the line isn’t blocking well, isn’t it?

    4) Yes, much will be corrected when Hayden gets back.

    The reason you ask? It’s not because of Sensabaugh for the most part, but he isn’t Haden. So the whole secondary is trying too hard to make up for losing Joe, in my opinion. They need to get back to just doing their own jobs. One Hayden returns, Burns will get more safety help so that if he does make a mistake, there may be someone in place to bail him out. That will take some pressure off of the kid and I’d bet that he will start to play better again.

    5) The earlier days of the 3/4 are gone. When was the last time you saw a 7 step drop in the NFL? Back in Joey Porter’s day, 7 step drops (or longer) were the norm. 7 steps, plant your feet, look down field, make your reads, find the open receiver, step up and throw. 4 seconds or more, right? Outside linebackers had time to shed a block and get after the quarterback. Today’s NFL, know where your going with the ball, make sure he’s open on a 3 step drop, plant and fire, unless you have an exceptional offensive line. Average time 2-3 seconds. Brady averages under 2 I believe. Outside linebackers can’t shed a block and get pressure. So in comes Heyward, Hargrave, Tuitt, and Williams. How do you beat a 2 second release? Collapse the pocket up the middle. Now In Butler’s 3/4 a sack seems to come on a blitz, the DL getting to the QB, an OL not being blocked or the DL chasing the QB into the OL’s waiting arms. If your rushing 4 or 5, VW and RS are pretty effective at applying pressure. Someone has to set the edge and someone has to cover. Dupree and Watt are doing pretty good job. Dupree is doing what they can expect and what they are asking him to do.

    Why isn’t Harrison playing? If he could cover as well as Watt, he probably would be, but the job has changed. Just like the Defensive ends, the title is the same, but the job description isn’t.


    • One more point about #1 (I guess I’m talkative this afternoon.) Tomlin’s comments may give the Pats a chuckle, as arrogant as they seem to be, Cinci and Baltimore need to win, so if they need extra incentive they should pack it in. I’m not saying they should pack it in (remembering the Steelers winning out and getting in to the playoffs after being 4 & 5), but needing to win out and playing the Steelers should be all the incentive they need. I think anyone worried about “bulletin board material” is thinking too much and needs to relax a little.


  • 1a. I don’t think Tomlin is “tempting fate” so much as grabbing the bull by the horns. I’m guessing he went into the first team meeting after the game as said “Well, guys, are you going to make me look like an idiot, or are you going to play like I believe you can?” Probably with a bit more of those words people use for special emphasis…

    2. I totally think he should be out there. Maybe teams will stop kicking the ball short if MB gets a few more substantial returns. (The surprise is not that teams are kicking the ball short as much as they are—the surprise, given our very unimpressive kick return game, is that they don’t all do it, every single time…)

    4. Haden will help, I think, but I’m guessing some backpedaling on Tomlin’s declaration that they need more “splash plays” and some haraunging about controlling your aggression appropriately will fix a lot of the problem. But then I was always an optimist… (And I don’t think we’re going to see A. Burns laughing on the sidelines after giving up a TD again…)


  • Hi Hombre,

    My encouragement is to include one question per week that is not to a Steeler’s or NFL fan. You have a tough assignment, trying to see if I can make it a little rougher.


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