Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Third Quarter Report
Photo via Steelers.com
By Ivan Cole
Over the last several years it has been the intent of these quarterly reports to allow for taking a quick breath and giving an interim evaluation of the Steelers as they navigate the season—both the successes and failures experienced as well as the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Occasionally, circumstances are such that a view to a more expansive landscape becomes both possible and appropriate. I believe this is one of those times.
So, I invite you to consider a somewhat broader, nonlinear evaluation of where Pittsburgh stands as they transition into the fourth quarter of this season.
The big question
And for the clear majority of Steelers Nation the only one that matters is, can this team secure their seventh Lombardi Trophy? The mindset behind this is both blessing and curse. The background noise playing both notably and subliminally is that this team is unambiguously capable, but the margin of error is such that a season can often turn on a handful of plays or a stroke of luck here and there. This makes the possibility of falling short a tragic potential option that lurks in the shadow of impressive success. But the answers to that question lies in a future that we cannot see from where we reside now, and to focus upon it is just unnecessary anxiety, as well as obscuring a lot of good news for both the short and long term.
Where the Steelers stand now
The third quarter of the 2017 season was defining, and not only for the current team. It also raised and provided some limited answers about the character of organization, the current nature of the professional game and our relationship to it as fans. Viewed from the perspective of the hopes and expectations of the preseason, what’s not to like? Most teams don’t reach double digit wins in an entire season. Some, like Cleveland, may not get there in multiple seasons.
The Steelers went undefeated in November, and slightly beyond, as the offense moved past their underachieving ways, averaging just under that dreamed-of 30 point-per-game target. If they manage to win their next two games they clinch, first, the division title, and then home field advantage throughout the playoffs respectively.
There are those who would (and have) argued that the team is flawed because a perfect record was possible. Perhaps. But it is not an accident that it has been 45 years since the last undefeated team in this league, with perfection in terms of losses also being exceedingly rare. That being said, the win/loss record is somewhat deceptive in that it hides the fact that the Steelers have been dominant without necessarily being dominating. Three of the four victories were achieved by three points or less, and at the last possible moment. Self-inflicted wounds, surrendering splash plays, and a creeping uptick in injuries have challenged this team, but hardened them as well. But even this doesn’t tell the whole story.
I expressed concern last week about the potential ugly bloodbath that could be Steelers/ Bengals. In many ways the game didn’t disappoint. Tyler Matakevich, Joe Mixon and Vontaze Burfict, among others, went down to injuries. JuJu Smith-Schuster and George Iloka earned suspensions. Of course, Ryan Shazier was something of a different, horrific order.
Gene Collier, Rebecca, Bob Labriola and others captured the mood of realization as to how utterly irrelevant our concerns about the game of football can be in the face of its tragic potentials for the participants, and the increasing difficulty in justifying our complicity in the process with our time, attention and passions. However, in the aftermath, as there is hope that Shazier escaped suffering permanent disability, the focus has shifted to how the team responded to the adversity and pulled out a difficult and inspiring win. As Bryan DeArdo of 247 Sports has noted, this is a team that is hard to not appreciate. They are a group of men who are immensely talented, likable and possessing great character and determination. The opportunity to celebrate such an assemblage comes rarely if ever for most fans.
Unfortunately, none of this guarantees a happy ending. One of the great lessons that Ryan Shazier’s trial has taught us is that it is not hyperbole to say that catastrophe is always one play away.
The big picture
This past Thursday, Washington’s season crashed and burned in Dallas. This account by the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell and this reaction by former players when contrasted with this interview with Steelers safety Mike Mitchell shows that Pittsburgh operates on a different level, the organization and fans, than any other in the league. And, yes, even considering their current run of success, I include New England in that assessment as well. The Steelers are doing very well at the moment, but it goes far beyond that.
Consider the following: In the combined Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin Eras, a period that spans 25 years, there have been only three losing seasons (zero under Tomlin), none in a decade and a half. It has been 30 years since they finished last in their division, and only once since 1970 have they won fewer than six games in a season. They’ve missed the playoffs altogether only eight times during the past quarter century.
The skunk at the picnic
The success of their record this season has been such that in certain respects December feels more like a period of coronation rather than competition. Many teams are already looking ahead to draft and team rebuilding issues. Coaches and GMs have been fired. Others changes are coming. There is talk of players being benched or otherwise shut down to either preserve their bodies or to give other promising players a chance to gain experience. Another tier of teams is jockeying for position to secure either a division title or any spot in the playoffs whatsoever. Call it the pre-playoff playoffs if you’d like.
The Steelers have been in that game plenty in recent years, so it shouldn’t seem unfamiliar. Then there is the small group of the blessed, Pittsburgh, along with the Pats and Eagles, whose main concerns are maintaining momentum, securing the best seeding possible and avoiding catastrophic injuries. For Steelers Nation, the concern is that the team has been successful without being consistently dominant. This has invited questions of fraudulence, of hidden weaknesses waiting to be exposed at the worst possible time. There is a partial truth here that must be conceded. The two 2017 losses came largely via self-inflicted wounds involving turnovers, blown assignments, and mistakes. This is and remains the most likely path to failure for this year’s team.
However, Mitchell’s interview provides some support and confirmation of a challenge I have been making to one of the prevailing myths of the past several years—that the Steelers play down to the level of their opponents. My argument has been that Pittsburgh has represented the gold standard for nearly 50 years. Yes, even with the obvious success of the Pats this century, it remains to be seen if it is sustainable beyond Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Among the teams (not just the media and the fans), the Steelers are recognized for doing it differently and better than everyone else long term. Consequently, as Mitchell points out, opponents play up to the Steelers, whether out of fear or ambition, showing capabilities often previously unseen. This gives us yet another perspective on the Standard.
‘It’s a five-star matchup because we’re in it’. Pittsburgh is going to get everyone’s best shot. The league and its media partners know this, which may give a more satisfactory explanation as to why a team that has not been to a Super Bowl in six years or won one in nine is currently in the midst of being featured in either primetime or the flagship national broadcast nine times in ten weeks and will be playing on Christmas Day for the second consecutive season. It also speaks to the necessity that the Standard means that to be competitive, the average outing must match the best an opponent can muster, because the best will be the expectation week after week.
On the other hand, what happens on those occasions when the Steelers themselves are inspired to play at their best or beyond? This is the potential and the promise.
Although the body of work isn’t complete, we can safely express some conclusions about Steelers management.
- They have successfully transitioned from the Dan Rooney Era. Art II’s team has been a work in progress for years, and Dan’s fingerprints are still all over everything, but, managerially speaking we are seeing the third generation effectively put the Standard in action.
- Excellent, even shockingly good personnel moves. It has not been noted enough that a team good enough to make it to the penultimate game last season, managed to make significant improvements through both the draft and smart veteran free agent acquisitions. It may be a good number of years in the future, but the day may come when GM Kevin Colbert might find himself enshrined in Canton as a key contributor to the game.
- There has been improvement, some of it dramatic, in areas that have been judged weaknesses. Specifically, the defensive secondary, clock management and reduction of injuries, which isn’t just all luck. There has been talk in some corners of Tomlin being a Coach of the Year candidate; unusual generally for Steelers head men, and not the norm for what are perceived to be very good teams to begin with. But navigating through the Bell holdout, the anthem controversy, Martavis Bryant’s growing pains, and the challenges of this last game in Cincinnati has earned him some attention.
- On the cusp of a dynasty? Winning just one championship with this group is the key. But if they can clear that hurdle this year there is a lot more on the table to be had by a group this young, talented and deep. If a smart secession plan can be executed for Ben Roethlisberger they could be a championship threat for years.
Tomlin’s public throwing down of the gauntlet represents the necessity of breaking through the final barrier to championship status. New England knows they can win and expect to do so. Pittsburgh to this point thinks they can win and hope to do so. Not good enough. The test for the fourth quarter is whether they get this and can apply it.
As he rather quietly passed the 50,000-yard mark in passing, Ben has successfully shut down the thinking that he is washed up. He will continue to toil in the shadow of Brady, which will mask to casual observers how good he continues to be, but he can continue to contribute at his current level that can be a winning difference. Another interesting indicator is the contrast with fellow 2004 draftee, Eli Manning. The best news is, besides a brief mop up appearance by Landry Jones, he and Joshua Dobbs have been invisible this season.
Le’Veon Bell wins if he can remain upright through the end of season and playoffs. He has proven his value and will be a very well-paid player somewhere next year and beyond. Though not the talent that Bell is, James Connor may be easier to block for, meaning his future can be bright with this offensive line. Roosevelt Nix continues to be a hidden treasure both in the backfield and on special teams.
I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say this—Antonio Brown is writing a Hall of Fame resume. Even as Bryant appears to be slowly rediscovering his mojo, the big story may be that JuJu Smith-Shuster will leap frog legitimately into the number two spot regardless of what Bryant does. The gap between that top three and the others are becoming glaringly apparent. Eli Rogers and Justin Hunter aren’t bad receivers, but for now not in the same class, and, frankly, disappointing and unreliable.
Of the key players on the team, only Marcus Gilbert has lost more time than he has been available between injury and his current suspension. Therefore, I would lift up Chris Hubbard as an MVP candidate for the O line, and the team generally. What else is noteworthy is the continuing improvement of Al Villanueva.
Tight end is the biggest question mark on this side of the ball. Vance McDonald and Jesse James remain inconsistent in their own ways, but I believe the jury is still out given James’ relative youth and McDonald’s inexperience in the system. But, don’t you miss Heath?
Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave are playing just fine, but no one anywhere is playing as well as Cam Heyward. Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton are proving to be more than capable of providing quality depth. It would indecent to place Shazier’s current injury within the same narratives that raised questions concerning his durability. Prior to Monday, Shazier was being touted as the best inside linebacker in the league. No more conversation about comparisons to C.J. Mosley and a reduction in the suggestions of moving him to safety. If there is a silver lining to this dark and ugly cloud it is that the door was opened for the return of Sean Spence, another fan favorite who has had his own heroic struggles with injury.
All that need to be said of the outside backers is that James Harrison still can’t get on the field consistently. Even with the splash plays they have surrendered recently, the marked improvement of the secondary is undeniable. They are better with Joe Haden than not, but was I the only one imaging a future where Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton reach their full potential?
Eliminate the blocked kicks and special teams has been great at preventing the big field flipping plays. Martavis Bryant has flashed the same level of big play potential as a kickoff returner as AB has in the punt game. I would be careful kicking him the ball.
Despite how well positioned the Steelers are, the fourth quarter of 2017 holds great potential for drama. Baltimore appears much improved, and as always we can assume it will be a brutal contest. Even if Pittsburgh manages to seize the division title at their expense, there is the real potential for a third meeting in January.
New England will certainly be the marquee game of the regular season, and though either a win or loss is likely to be overvalued, there is no avoiding that both teams will be seeking to make a statement. They should not be surprised if Houston manages a supernatural effort on a national stage on Christmas, with the Steelers potentially distracted by being on the road for the big day, as well as a potential hangover/letdown after playing the Pats.
The Browns will be playing for their jobs and maybe their self-respect in order to avoid a winless season. Hopefully by then Pittsburgh will be positioned to give the bottom of the depth chart some extended work, and will be readying themselves for the Fifth Quarter.