The Case for the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers
Karl Rosen photo/ Steelers.com
By Ivan Cole
I begin with my usual disclaimer that I focus on potentialities rather than predictions. Many things can and will happen between now and February that impact outcomes. I will address some of these shortly. That being said, it’s not going out on a limb to assert that the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl Champion contenders as measured by the accumulated talent, organizational leadership and support. Unfortunately, there is more involved. What follows are the four horsemen of the Apocalypse that alone or in tandem can undermine a season.
This is the demon that stalks every player on every team. Only the self-deluded don’t understand that it is the norm, not the exception, that professional football destroys the human body. With an injury rate of 100 percent, it is not a matter of if, but when and how severely. Ryan Shazier is the dramatic (traumatic) example, but fortunately, this is more the horrific exception.
Subtler, would be to highlight the cases of Marcus Gilbert and Antonio Brown. Gilbert missed several games due to injury and suspension, but the presence and performance of Chris Hubbard rendered the impact negligible. On the other hand, one is left to wonder whether the timing of Brown’s injury, early in the New England game, could, as much or more than the late game dramatics, effected the outcome of that contest and the trajectory of the season. Even before the first game has been played, a number of teams have been crippled by the loss of key personnel. The first big victory of the season has been that the Steelers got out of the preseason physically intact. How long can that last?
This is the honest term for business and league policy decisions that inadvertently or deliberately advantage or disadvantage teams or individual players. Thursday Night Football would be a good general example. But there are also many other instances that are more focused. The Jesse James non-catch was the most egregious of several officiating decisions coming out of New York that seemed to favor the Patriots. (Didn’t you entertain for just a nanosecond the possibility that the Eagles’ last touchdown in the Super Bowl might be reversed?)
The James debacle drew attention from another matter involving Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski. You may recall that in the second Cincinnati game, middle school bully JuJu Smith-Shuster blind-sided and then taunted (punked) hitman Luca Brasi, uh, beg your pardon, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. For this JuJu earned a one game suspension. Gronk assaulted a defenseless player who was on the ground, with his back turned, after the whistle. For this he received the same length of suspension as the criminal JuJu—one game. It should also be noted that JuJu’s block was considered illegal because it violated the (ahem) Hines Ward Rule. Because as we all know, the bullying of linebackers by wide receivers has been a serious problem.
Since Gronk’s suspension was only for one game he was (fortunately) [and of course quite coincidentally – Ed.] available to play in Pittsburgh where he and Tom Brady were all that stood between the Pats and the Abyss.
Now, in 2018, as I mentioned in my previous piece, larger national level politics are almost certain to be part of the equation, starting with anthem issues. Looking forward, what if the Steelers win the Super Bowl? It is still considered standard practice that the Champion goes to the White House. So, (15 second pause) how do you think that’s going to go down? The recently deceased owner supported that, ah, ‘Arab’ and served in his administration. Obama attended Dan Rooney’s funeral, something that Terry Bradshaw couldn’t find the time for. (Did that slip off my fingers on to the keyboard? Sorry). The head coach appears to be a lightning rod for Alt Right and white supremacist types. It could have been worse if that miscreant JuJu had managed to persuade LeBron James to join the team. Think about it.
Someone get Al Riveron on the phone. Go Browns!
A player from the 70s Champion Super Bowl teams responded when asked about the team’s success that, “You have to be good, but you have to be lucky too. The ball bounces in funny ways.” This is both a literal and metaphoric truth. Whether a blow to a joint leads to a sprain or a rupture of tendons and ligaments, weather conditions on a particular day favors the strengths of one team over another, which way a fumble bounces, the plant foot of a kicker slides, all are things that occur in the game and cannot be account for by coaching or training.
Championships are as much about will and confidence as it is about talent and schemes. The latter issues are often enough to help a team win games, but the bar for championships is higher and more esoteric. Remember the story about The Little Engine That Could. ‘I think can’ (belief), is not the same as ‘I know I can’ (confidence). If these things were simply a matter of talent and the accumulation of successes, then the 2004 Pittsburgh team should have been a Lombardi winner more so than the 2005 or 2008 teams.
I believe the Patriots are a team well past its prime that continues to successfully contend through experience, inertia and reputation. They know they can win when many of their opponents only think that they can. With only Ben Roethlisberger and Morgan Burnett (via Green Bay) with championship experience, the challenge for this year’s team is if they can clear that final hurdle. If so, then you have the makings of a dynasty. If not…
The case can be made that GM Kevin Colbert represents the state of the art in player personnel. While the ultimate success of a draft may not be measured for years, the fact that despite this being a talented team that won their division and was a second seeded playoff team the previous year, it is significant that all but one of this year’s draft choices made the team. This along with the ongoing success integrating others into the mix via UDFAs (Matthew Thomas), free agent acquisitions (Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic), trades (Ryan Switzer) has the Steelers continuing to reload at a rate that more than matches the built-in attrition in the NFL system. This is a team that aggressively refuses to stand pat and gives the sense that if they have not gotten better they have at least not given any ground.
Head coach Mike Tomlin begins his 12th campaign still having yet to experience a losing season. His ‘paltry’ championship experience (two Super Bowls, one Lombardi) matches or exceeds franchise records in terms of trips to the big game (Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville, Houston – None: New York Jets, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Los Angeles Chargers, New Orleans – One: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, Atlanta, Carolina, Kansas City, Seattle – Two), and wins (Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minnesota, Carolina, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Houston, Los Angles Chargers, Arizona – None: Philadelphia, New York Jets, Chicago, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Kansas City, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle – One). Bill Belichick, who is about twenty years Tomlin’s senior, was being fired by the Cleveland Browns at a similar point in his career. Just a bit of perspective.
There have been changes down the line on Tomlin’s staff from last season to this. While I have no concrete proof currently, I am willing to go out on the limb concerning the impact of two of them.
It seems likely to me that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner would have had an outsized influence on the decision to keep quarterback Joshua Dobbs over Landry Jones. Having served as quarterbacks coach, Fichtner has as good a knowledge as any concerning the capabilities of those who occupy the quarterbacks room. Because of his elevation to coordinator his views might carry more weight. It should not be overlooked that the decision also could have a significant effect on his own job security as well.
When I visited training camp a month ago, the group that showed the most potential and excitement to my eyes was the defensive secondary, Tom Bradley’s guys. I’ll address it in more detail later.
Of the three legs of the team, this will be the most intriguing with the most question marks in the beginning of the year, but will probably be the most stable, spectacular and productive over the length of the season. The key questions will be:
What changes Fichtner brings to how this offense operates, the shift in focus among the quarterbacks from the undercard to the headliner and how a seemingly rejuvenated Roethlisberger performs for someone with whom he enjoys a better relationship.
How the Le’Veon Bell situation settles and its impact on the field and in the locker room.
The seemingly endless injury issues with the tight ends and whether the middle of the wide receivers room, Justin Hunter and James Washington, can deliver on the promise each demonstrated during the summer.
The bottom line hasn’t changed here. The closest thing to an irreplaceable asset—as Ben goes, so goes the Steelers. I don’t think it is hyperbole to think that the possibility exists for Ben to be playing some of his best football this season, both because of his maturity and a more empowering support system. If they keep him clean he is capable of winning any game he is a part of.
What has changed is that his backups are both being groomed to be starters in waiting, either in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. What that means is that sometime in the not so distant future, Ben may no longer be irreplaceable. I say this to mean not so much a future quarterback controversy, but a reassertion of the level of depth enjoyed when Ben was backed up by the likes of Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. This represents a reduction of vulnerability at this position.
Someone in the Le’Veon Bell brain trust is a real jerk—either Bell himself or members of his team. Someone who has allowed him to get caught up in the PR and performance hit of being in substance abuse protocol over clueless weed smoking, and has screwed up his contract negotiating strategy to the point that he has descended from one of the most admired talents in the league to being viewed as a tone deaf, greedy, unsympathetic fool. LeGarrette Blount 2.0. More talent, no rings. Alienating your offensive line? That’s smart. Now Bell really does have reason be concerned about his health.
The importance of this rant is that I have not been a Bell detractor. I think that running backs, and players in general, are being underpaid, especially given the injury issues already mentioned in tandem with a paucity of guaranteed money. What Bell’s team has managed to do, which isn’t easy, is undercut support of players by essentially throwing his teammates under the bus after they demonstrated patience and forbearance through his absence from team activities to this point. Having the thoughtful Ramon Foster speak out against you (as opposed to say, the fiery Maurkice Pouncey) is not a good thing.
And good luck now with the fans. The retort will be that the optics may be bad, but this is just business. But sometimes the optics are part of the business equation. Of greatest relevance to these observations is that it creates a distraction and a leadership challenge right off the bat, something that has the potential of becoming cancerous if it is allowed to continue.
On a more hopeful note, the remainder of the room appears deep and solid. James Connor, Steven Ridley and rookie Jaylen Samuels all impressed during the preseason. Roosevelt Nix remains solid at fullback. The running attack is likely to prosper even without Bell’s contributions, but that would not be preferable.
Our delegation to training camp were impressed in a similar fashion with rookie James Washington as we had been last year when we first laid eyes on JuJu Smith-Shuster. The ‘combat’ catches that were on display in the preseason games were consistent with his activity in practice. Hunter has demonstrated many of the qualities that we had come to admire from the now departed Martavis Bryant. His issue has been whether the promise of the preseason translates into consistency during the regular campaign. If so, in combination with Antonio Brown and an improving Smith-Shuster, add Eli Rogers on deck for availability later in the year and the always situationally dangerous Darrius Heyward-Bey and the potential is there for one the most formidable receiving corps that this team has produced in recent memory. Given the history, that is a significant assertion.
Health is the challenge here, as it has been for several seasons now. Hopefully, Vance McDonald’s absence over the summer was more precautionary and not an indication that he will be Ladarius Green 2.0. A healthy trio that includes Jesse James and Xavier Grimble would be best, but, like the running backs, would be competitive even at less than full strength through part of the season.
Hard to find much fault with a frontline group that when healthy has four legitimate Pro Bowl and two All Pro caliber players. B J Finney has proven more than capable in a backup role. The key question is if newcomers Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner can combine with Matt Feiler to make up for the loss of Chris Hubbard to free agency and Jerald Hawkins to injury.
Coordinator Keith Butler’s crew has been considered to be the weak link, and the apparent inability to secure a credible straight up replacement for Ryan Shazier have made some nervous. There is something of an air of mystery, due, I believe, to the fact that the defensive approach and the roles of the positions are evolving, creating some disconnects with our expectations. If the group remains reasonably healthy there may be some pleasant surprises coming with their performances.
The key to this group will be the health of frontline bookends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt played hurt through much of last season and it showed. We should continue to expect quality work from Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu and L. T. Walton, but the big surprise for Karl Dunbar’s group was that Dan McCullers was able to rally and keep his job. I confess to believing that the drafting of Joshua Frazier who played for Dunbar at Alabama would be the kiss of death for McCullers, but as it turns out, Frazier was the one draftee who was cut from the team.
I’m sure that for many this was the most concerning group going into camp. The inside group appeared undermanned and uninspiring. On the other side things now appear intriguing with a deep group of players. Vince Williams is now the singular leader of this group, has signed a long-term deal, and demonstrated that inside backers can be effective blitzers too. Jon Bostic appears to be comfortably fitting in. But much of this summer’s excitement came from undrafted rookie Matthew Thomas, who dazzled and easily captured camp phenom honors, and L.J. Fort, who seems to have made a significant leap. Tyler Matakevich rounds out the inside group. While Shazier’s talent is irreplaceable, the inside group looks to be well above the line in a solid, if not spectacular manner.
The situation with the outside group is a little less clear. T.J. Watt was held out of the preseason, so his status will be determined in Cleveland on opening day. With Landry Jones now in the rearview mirror, poor Bud Dupree seems to have assumed the mantle of that guy that a segment of the fan base just can’t stand. My runner up for camp phenom would be Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, who might have been cloned from James Harrison, and who is currently on injured reserve. That means it is just Dupree, Watt and Anthony Chickillo, which on the surface looks thin, but considering how the line and backers are being deployed, along with the interesting things emanating out of the secondary, I wouldn’t be too concerned.
A few years ago, we came to the startling realization that the offensive line, which was considered the weak link of the team, had become its strength. We may soon come to think that way about the defensive secondary. Very deep—an interesting blend of veterans (Joe Haden, Morgan Burnett, Coty Sensabaugh, Nat Berhe), young players moving into their prime (Artie Burns, Sean Davis) and 1st and 2nd year talent (Terrell Edmunds, Marcus Allen, Cameron Sutton, Mike Hilton, Jordan Dangerfield). Plenty of position flexibility with this group, with players like Edmunds able to move from linebacker through safety to cornerback. Bradley had them playing in a seven back ‘Dollar’ formation when we observed them. While they may lack (so far) a transcendent star like a Mel Blount, Rod Woodson or Troy Polamalu that characterized other great Steelers secondaries, I think their days of being the weak link may be coming to an end.
There was some energy around the possibility of replacing punter Jordan Berry, but at the end of the day special teams has settled into a steady, if unspectacular, third leg of the stool. It is hoped that Ryan Switzer will add some excitement to the return game or at the very least do well enough to release AB from punt duty. With Robert Golden now gone, Chris Boswell, who inked a long-term deal himself, has now added captain duties for the group.
This is a talented, deep team that has something of an air of mystery about it, because changes are in the works, and they haven’t completely shown their hand yet. The big questions entering the season are:
Can they manage the injury issues that come along?
Will the antics surrounding Bell be brought under control?
Can they mesh as a team, come to terms with the bullseye on their backs as one of the front runners for the championship, and make the leap that gets them to what Tomlin likes to call the Confetti Game?
If they make it that far then I like their chances to finish.