Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Fourth Quarter Report: Part Four
Photo via Steelers.com
By Ivan Cole
Spent some time in the last segment reminiscing about the good old days when Steelers fans thought of the offensive line as the problem children. That mantle has been passed on to the defensive secondary. So, there has been some disorientation with how things have been playing out throughout this season. How is it possible that the problem child could be among the league leaders through much of the season in the virtual blink of an eye? Conversely, why are they giving up so many big plays?
Taking that second question first: I thought there was so much distain for the bend-but- don’t-break zone driven philosophy. We wanted more man principles. Well, as they say, be careful what you ask for. They’re getting off the field quickly now. Just kidding, sort of.
A more complete explanation begins with acknowledging that defense, like the offensive line, is ensemble work, with success as dependent upon how the collective meshes together as individual virtuosity. That’s what I always personally loved about defense. If the best offense was like a great classical performance, then great defense was jazz—reactive spontaneity within a structural framework that to an untrained eye might look like chaos. The vulnerability is that ten out of eleven players successfully executing their assignments may not be good enough.
At the beginning of the season I glibly suggested the secondary group might need to resort to wearing name tags, a dangerous thing in that despite the quality of talent and scheme, inexperience working together could result in the occasional catastrophic breakdown. Remember when it was recognized that the great value of Ryan Clark was his ability to anticipate and mesh with the improvisational gifts of Troy Polamalu (and prior to that with the late Sean Taylor in Washington). You can’t take that for granted.
This process of integration would be the chief challenge of the Steelers defense. This was then thrown into incredible disarray with the loss of Ryan Shazier.
The organization has done a highly commendable job in assembling a deeply talented team, capable of achieving at a high level even missing key components. However, there remain a handful of players whose absence will degrade the quality of the product.
Whether that degradation is survivable is another question. Shazier is one of those players (Cam Heyward, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, and probably Antonio Brown and Joe Haden are the others). Last year the middle was patrolled by Shazier and a still effective Lawrence Timmons. Now the team will have to make do with Vince Williams and Sean Spence.
Spence, besides the fact that he was sitting on his couch watching the games like the rest of us a few short weeks ago, had been previously written off by Keith Butler because of the severity of the injury he suffered in his rookie season. (And wouldn’t it be a wonderful story if, given his own injury history, Spence played a hand in advancing a championship run by the Steelers?) Gene Collier wrote a great article about the tangled careers of Spence and Shazier in last Sunday’s Post-Gazette. Highly recommended read…
A good guess as to why more defensive players didn’t sit out the final game against the Browns was because of the need for more integrative work as opposed to the benefits of providing rest for, mostly, young bodies.
Easily the most transformed and improved area of the team. It is an intriguing combination of veteran experience and savvy (Haden, Mike Mitchell, William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh, J.J. Wilcox and Robert Golden) with young, upcoming talent (Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen).
Haden is clearly the best of the bunch, and Burns also seems to play much better when Joe is on the field. But the big story has to be flea market pick up Mike Hilton, whose performance is no less impressive than that of Villanueva on the other side of the ball. One potentially subtle benefit of Hilton’s play may be that of reduced wear and tear on the aging veteran Gay, going into the playoffs.
Safety appears to be a little more problematic. If the Steelers were more honest and possessed a refined, wicked sense of humor, they would include among their end of seasons awards the Glenn Glass Scapegoat Award, given to the coach and player who are the main reason we are all not currently residing in Heaven. Of course, Todd Haley, like Bruce Arians before him, would retire the coaches’ trophy. On the players side it appears that Mike Mitchell is now edging out Landry Jones.
Scapegoating involves the externalization and localizing of sins such that a community can experience redemption at the expense of one individual. It is a game that Steelers Nation plays continuously and well. In the never-ending striving for perfection, someone has got to go.
In recent years, one of the leading candidates has been quarterback Landry Jones. His crimes? He was never going to be good as Ben. Nor would he be as beloved as his predecessor Charlie Batch. But that negative energy had been dissipating of late, in part because Ben has been healthy. Consequently, we haven’t had Landry to kick around so much. And that when he has been on the field Jones hasn’t been playing that badly. In fact, he could probably start for a number of teams and be an improvement.
So, the energy has been moving toward Mitchell, who has at least three things going against him. He is part of the problem children group of the team, he is hurt a lot, and he is not Troy Polamalu.
Full disclosure—I haven’t been immune to the anti-Mitchell fever, but I am attempting to repent. Though Mitchell is probably not nearly as bad as some might imagine, what we are learning about Steelers leadership at this time is that they don’t stand pat. There is a continual striving to improve. So, don’t be surprised if the next great personnel achievement is the acquisition of Mitchell’s heir who will be the long- term partner of the, still, talented but mercurial Sean Davis.
Can’t quite compare this group to the Smith-Hampton-Keisel line of the past. Different skill set, different mission. The bright, shining beacon is Cam Heyward who was named an All Pro this week for his work on the field, and who also has been extraordinarily influential as one of the key team leaders. If the Steelers can be more successful in the post season his healthy presence will probably will be one of the big difference makers.
But his has not been a solitary accomplishment. Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton puts the unit in the conversation as one of the deepest Pittsburgh has put out there
The performance of Vince Williams has more than justified the moves the team has made in the last year in extending him and allowing Timmons to walk. But it was never intended for him to be the lead dog, much less a one-man gang on the inside. Losing Shazier has hurt on a range of levels. A wounded Tyler Matakevich didn’t help either. The now departed James Harrison transform this group from being one of the deepest and talented on the team to a much thinner and vulnerable group. The T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo rotation on the outside will likely be fine. How Spence and L.T. Fort step up could make a big difference.
All of the sudden there exists a dangerous return game for both kickoffs and punts. Does anyone remember when that could be said about the Steelers? Along with the steady performance of Chris Boswell, it provides a welcome additional dimension going into the playoffs. In fact, I don’t recall there being a warmer feeling for a special teams group—DHB, Dirty Red, Nix, Golden, Chickillo, etc. in my time.
I see Matakevich’s Pro Bowl selection as much a group achievement award as anything.
The Steelers had a great regular season by any measure. The thing is, with Steelers Nation the regular season doesn’t really count. Here’s hoping that this time they really do unleash hell.