Pittsburgh Steelers Fourth Quarter Report, Part 1

E07A5A20-E908-4AEC-BE40-8DADA9353D3BPhoto via Steelers.com

By Ivan Cole

A different approach

Of course, the great news is that though the regular season is concluded, this is not the end. This is the key objective and measure of success for every professional football franchise. The team met, indeed, exceeded comfortably the standard that allows for participation in overtime—the fifth quarter playoffs–the penultimate goal for the Pittsburgh organization.

Nonetheless, I believe this to be the proper time to assess this team’s journey. I feel this approach is merited for three reasons:

While the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl, realistically, success in the regular season is the variable over which you can exercise the most control in preparation and performance. Failure in this area renders playoff concerns irrelevant. Plus, there are factors in the playoff equation that often defy common assumptions from the beginning of the team building process. For example, who would have asserted six months ago that it would be Jacksonville, as opposed to Houston, who would be breathing down the Steelers’ neck in the playoff chase?

Though not impossible, it is harder to make a sound judgement on a team based upon the single elimination Armageddon that is NFL playoff football. A bizarre bounce of a ball in the Immaculate Reception game led to a Steelers win when they likely deserved to lose. Recently, an executive decision from New York led to a loss where they deserved to win. It has become accepted that these wild cards are factored into how we view team success even though it is beyond the reasonable ability of a team to control, or in the case of an Al Riveron, to even imagine.

Selfishly, I would prefer we ponder what follows while we are all still fully engaged. Regardless of the potential outcomes, sober reflection on Pittsburgh’s accomplishments will be more difficult during playoff fever. We can and will revisit many of these issues after the dust (or, hopefully, confetti) settles in the coming weeks.

The record

The bottom line was 13 wins and 3 losses. The Steelers were perfect in the third quarter of the season and had a .750 winning percentage in all the others. They won and swept their division and tied for the best record in the league.

A word about the losses: Two came against division-winning teams, and two occurred in the final seconds of the game. It can be argued that several of their last-second wins could be losses; conversely, a 15-1 record was a realistic possibility as well. As for the one loss to an ‘inferior’ opponent, (Chicago) I stand by my contention that what we may be seeing as often as not are teams playing up to the Steelers as opposed to the other way around.

It is also important to note that every other playoff team in AFC, even the oh-so-brilliantly-coached New England Patriots, have suffered upsets, or what we now like to call “trap games,” this season. Consider also that there are no Vanderbilt’s or Rice’s in the NFL. Any Given Sunday is real, and is also the reason why 0-16 is almost as rare as 16-0 teams. The only missed objective was the number one seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

However, keep in mind that the road record at 7-1 is better than at home (6-2). It is also worth noting that there no matter how hard you search, you will find no asterisks associated with style points. And if you are looking for parallels, the Steelers’ last two championships came when they were a sixth seed (2005), and then were a two seed in 2008, when they lost a similar late season showdown to the eventual one seeded Tennessee Titans. Unfortunately for the Titans, in the zeal of their victory they made a Bengal-like move by desecrating a Terrible Towel. They were beaten by the Ravens in the divisional round, and no one has heard from them since.

Grade: A+

Leadership

Exactly how the sausage is made in the Steelers organization is a mystery. I imagine that the roles of ownership, business management, scouting, coaching and player input are not as discreet as they are in other franchises. Consequently, assigning credit or blame is more art and guesswork than science. We came into the season wondering what discernable impact the loss of Dan Rooney would have on the team going forward. With the harvest of the off season and regular season body of work now in the barn, we can draw some credible conclusions.

Personnel

It is remarkable to me that a team that was in the AFCCG last season continues to improve (for the second season in a row), and dramatically so.

This, in fact, is key, in my opinion, to understanding at least some aspects of the James Harrison story. When Deebo was re-signed, a big part of the motivation was because of under-performance at the outside linebacker position. The team and fans felt they really needed him, even given that he was in decline. In one year the situation at outside linebacker has significantly upgraded via deletion (Jarvis Jones), addition (T.J. Watt, and don’t forget Keion Adams, perhaps even Farrington Huguenin in the wings) and development (Bud Dupree, and especially Anthony Chickillo), as well as through changes in scheme that in virtually the twinkling of an eye transformed Harrison from essential to a break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency type player.

His refusal to embrace the one area—leadership/mentor—that would remain highly valuable to the team made him not only expendable, but, if the reports are to be believed, toxic.

This is just a fraction of what has proved possible with personnel acquisitions that have resulted in significant improvement, even in areas like the draft where, in theory, the team should have been at a disadvantage, given their low draft position.

Free agent acquisitions have provided two starters (Joe Haden and Vance McDonald) and three reserves who have made some key contributions (Tyson Alualu, Coty Sensabaugh and J.J. Wilcox). Arguably the least impactful player, Justin Hunter, has a touchdown reception to his credit. Looks like Stevan Ridley and Sean Spence will be included as successes as well, based upon the limited work we have seen thus far.

Of these we give special attention to Haden. Not only because he has been the most impactful of the group, but provides concrete evidence of my contention that Pittsburgh may have certain advantages in the free agent game because they are an attractive destination for players who have a choice as to where they will practice their craft.

The worst thing I have ever heard about the Rooney family was that they were (allegedly) cheap, and we haven’t heard that in a very long time. Head Coach Mike Tomlin has been characterized as a player’s coach, which is not always stated as a complement.

The fact is that if money had been the prime mover and motivation Haden would not be a Steeler. Football players are no different than the rest of us if they have their heads on straight. There are a variety of considerations involved in career decisions, with compensation being only one, and often not the most important. Competitive success certainly played a role, but character match is also a factor.

Dig into Haden’s backstory, as well as others such as Sensabaugh, (you can find profiles of both players on the site…Ed.) and you find additional support for why they would decide to choose Pittsburgh. Nor is this just a nice feel good aspect of things. Character issues have scuttled otherwise promising programs in Cincinnati and Dallas, just to name two of the worst offenders.

The draft.

We were delighted last season when the top three picks of the 2016 draft, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, developed into up and coming contributing starters, and Tyler Matakevich brought some dynamism in a reserve role. It wasn’t reasonable to expect because they would be drafting even lower this season, but wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a couple of promising prospects that might blossom in a year or two? Could anyone have reasonably imagined that they would do even better?

T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster are not just starter quality, but star quality players. If you are looking for a catalyst for the Harrison meltdown, go no further than the outstanding performance of Watt. Despite this, it was JuJu who won the Joe Greene Rookie award and who has captured the imagination and love of Steelers Nation like no other rookie player since Franco Harris.

Things are dampened a bit for third rounders James Connor and Cameron Sutton due to circumstances, not promise. In the former case, it’s because he is the backup to the best running back in the league, and eventually, because of a season ending injury. In the latter case it is because he spent much of the season on IR. But both have shown enough in their limited appearances that they comfortably belong in the conversation with the other names mentioned.

There is also the tantalizing question of down the roster red shirt players like Jerald Hawkins and Brian Allen. Are they just mediocre contributors who will play out the string of their rookie contracts or be bumped off the train with subsequent waves of high talent newcomers, or are they in a time-release situation where they will evolve like L.T. Walton and Chickillo did into bigger more impactful roles?

The Flea Market.

Mike Hilton was picked up off the street a year ago. This past week he is AFC Defensive Player of the Week. A couple of years ago Al Villanueva was picked up off the street. He was just named to the Pro Bowl, as was Chris Boswell. I won’t say any more. Just think about that.

Pittsburgh sent more players—eight—to the Pro Bowl than any other team. And we believe that a ninth, Cam Heyward, was snubbed. There is a good chance that half of that number will make All Pro. Something else to think about as well.

Grade: A++

The remainder of Ivan’s very thorough report will appear tomorrow…

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