Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Fourth Quarter Report: Part Three
By Ivan Cole
Earlier in the season it all seemed upside down and wrong. Predicted to be the strength of the team, the offense was sputtering. They and the team were being carried by a defense which appeared to be as much of a surprise in the opposite direction. Folks were fully engaged in one of the favorite pastimes of Steelers Nation—hating on offensive coordinator Todd Haley. A few individuals were grumbling within the unit. There were suggestions that some players were losing one or more steps, while others had reached the ceiling of their capabilities. Had that juggernaut Steeler offense, led by the Killer B’s, been just a mirage, a tease?
In the fourth quarter we got a definitive answer. We are reminded that teams are different entities from year to year even if the personnel remains largely the same. It took some time—longer than the defense, which tends to be the normal course of things.
Turns out that Ben Roethlisberger was not washed up, despite some of the words that came from his own mouth. Le’Veon Bell had not lost a step so much as necessary preparation time. Speaking of time, Martavis Bryant needed more than he or his critics anticipated to shake off the rust of a year-long suspension. Vance McDonald needed time as well, and it is proving to be the friend of rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Pittsburgh enters the playoffs in much the manner that was believed and hoped for, with an offense that appears to be borderline unstoppable, and then mainly only by themselves. Even with the loss of backup running back James Connor and the possibility that Antonio Brown and B.J. Finney may not be 100 percent, the Steelers offense is far healthier than they were either at the end of the 2015 season when they went into Denver for a divisional playoff game minus Brown, Bell, DeAngelo Williams and with a crippled Roethlisberger (Thanks Vontaze), or last season where Bell was lost early in the AFCCG, Brown was present, but with a depleted supporting cast (Bryant and Markus Wheaton out, Sammie Coates with mangled hands).
There had been a stat somewhere that showed that the Killer B’s had only been on the field together for 9 percent of the snaps on offense over the past few years. And even then, that was largely minus JuJu and McDonald. So, what happens when they are healthy and highly motivated? We have, literally, never seen such a thing, and it is exciting to contemplate.
As I write this Steelers Nation is in a panic. Mike Munchak has been invited to interview for head coaching vacancies around the league. If they had such a thing, the MVP for the coaching staff would go to Munchak in a rout.
If you are relatively new to following Steelers football, you might fail to appreciate the paradigm shift that the team and the Nation has been experiencing. During much of the Tomlin regime, the O line were the problem children. Barely competent when they weren’t injured, it was believed that the team won the 2008 Super Bowl despite the offensive line.
Today they are a foundational strength of the team. One of the best, if not the best in the league. They placed three people in the Pro Bowl. No real surprise there. Most of us would have predicted that months ago. Except, it would have been a different group.
All Pro Maurkice Pouncey would be a lock, of course, as would David DeCastro, who has matured from being the Christmas pony to quite the thoroughbred. The third would have been right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Gilbert didn’t suffer a drop in his ability, but rather too spare a body of work due to injury and suspension. Instead, that third selection went to Villanueva.
Now, let us pause and meditate on this for a moment. Tomlin and company visited the NFL equivalent of the flea market, picked up a defensive line cast off who is now, not just one of the top offensive linemen in the league; HE’S ONE OF THE TOP LEFT TACKLES IN THE LEAGUE!
You may recall hearing conversation here or there that, after quarterback, left tackle is the most important and impactful position on the entire team. This also means that there are four, rather than three, all star caliber performers on this unit. Yes, I know, its not five. What the hell is the story on Ramon Foster? Such a disappointment. Bust!
But let’s also acknowledge that this awards stuff can be political. If you told me that Villanueva’s selection was influenced by the fact that he is an army Ranger during the year of the anthem protests, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Is there another metric that can be utilized that is a more objective measure of competency? Well, I’m going on memory rather than stats, but I don’t recall that Ben missed so much as one snap due to distress or injury this season. If true, don’t you find that remarkable?
But if I were picking an MVP for this group, it might not be any of the aforementioned individuals. That honor might go to group swiss army knife Chris Hubbard. It is true that Hubbard found his level of incompetence playing center in the Browns game. But given that he’s played both tackle position as well as tight end, I’m willing to give him some slack over the fact that he hasn’t had much time to get his shotgun snaps down.
And this is what a paradigm shift looks like.
If Ben retires it will not be because he can’t still play at an elite level. I know that many reading this believe that his retirement after this season is set in stone. I don’t agree. It’s a possibility, but one of several. Here are the things to consider.
Functionally and historically, Ben is a better quarterback than is generally recognized. Two factors may account for this. One is that the Steeler system tends to mute the individual greatness of its participants in favor of the system. The second is that Roethlisberger is a figure of controversy, in part because of his personal history, and because his body and style deviates from convention.
Two bets here: He will more greatly appreciated after he hangs up his cleats (an easy first ballot Hall of Famer), and for business and entertainment reasons the football world would rather him stay a day too long rather than leave a day too early. This may be particularly true since it appears the handwriting is on the wall for Tom Brady, and the future is uncertain for Aaron Rodgers in a period of diminishing star power around the league.
The more immediate issue is what are the chances that Ben simply walks away from a team that may be on the cusp of dynasty while his own tools are still sharp, is experiencing a minimum of wear and tear, and has a toolbox of weapons reminiscent of a video game as opposed to a football team. If the post season ends in disappointment then, yes, maybe he quits. But if they win, the promise and temptation of a run that might leapfrog him close to very top of the list of great quarterbacks may be too enticing to resist.
Perhaps its time to revisit our feelings about Landry Jones. Given the job description and a sober evaluation of his work over the past two seasons, he has become a capable backup. Joshua Dobbs will, if we are lucky, remain a mystery and a fantasy for the foreseeable future.
There may be a couple of others around the league who may have a slight edge statistically, but let there be no doubt that Le’Veon Bell is a generational talent who, if he can remain healthy for the short (these playoffs) and long term will prove as lethal to the aspirations of opponents as any weapon the Steelers now possess.
In this sense, losing Connor is, relatively speaking, fortunate (as in insignificant) because if Bell remains available any of the remaining backs (Ridley, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Terrell Watson) all seem adequate to the task of spelling Bell on a spot basis. What is new, and intriguing is the expansion of possibilities for fullback Roosevelt Nix.
Unlike Bell, it was proven in the fourth quarter that there is sufficient quality depth at the receiver position to survive the loss of Antonio Brown. In many cases it is a matter of Ben raising the level of available talent, though as was proven in last season’s conference championship game, there are limits.
Brown, to the everlasting regret of Bill Steinbach, is now making a case for consideration as one of the greatest receivers of all time. The latter portion of the season has seen Bryant reassert himself and the blossoming of JuJu. This is an extraordinary trio of receivers. And the three behind them (Eli Rodgers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter) can deliver as well.
I was wrong about both the need for and the abilities of a Vance McDonald. And Jesse James is more effective not having to be the marquee guy in that group. The question is whether McDonald, in particular, can remain healthy and maintain his recent consistency in pass catching.
Simply speaking, the Steelers offense is loaded and has the capacity to score anytime they take the field. It is possible that they can be unstoppable. There are, however, three areas of concern—Todd Haley’s play calling, Ben’s tendency to opt for lower percentage plays that, when they fail, kill momentum, and for lack of a better term, the bounce of the ball.