Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Second Quarter Report

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By Ivan Cole

It’s hard to argue with 4-0, though we know that some will manage to overcome this challenge. As we pass through the first weekend in November and into the second half of the season the September stench has dissipated considerably. The landscape has changed dramatically in Pittsburgh, the AFC North and around the league. Indeed, when both football and non-football occurrences are considered, who could have predicted where we find ourselves as we enter the heart of the holiday season.

In the NFC the Rams are proving themselves the class of the conference, if not the whole league. As Philadelphia suffers a particularly harsh Super Bowl hangover, Washington emerges as the Beast of the East. Similarly, another team with high expectations, Atlanta, has yielded to more robust divisional rivals in New Orleans and Pittsburgh’s Thursday night opponent, Carolina. The Bears impress in the North.

In the AFC the Patriots appear to continue to have an unfair advantage in that they are spotted six victories due to their inept divisional rivals. Jacksonville show themselves to be paper Jaguars as the Texans surge. That loss to the Chiefs looks more forgivable with every passing week.

But has any story been more peculiar than that of the AFC North? Sure, they weren’t printing playoff tickets yet, but it appeared that the Browns had turned a corner to, what in Cleveland at least, would pass for respectability. Instead, not waiting for the New Year’s rush, head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were both cashiered before Halloween. Remember all the talk about how well the Bengals were doing? Well, as Dennis Green might say, Marvin, Andy and Vontaze are who we thought they are, at least so far. But perhaps the most surprising turnaround may be Baltimore. After beating the Steelers solidly in Pittsburgh, there was some thinking that they might be able to apply the dagger to the Steelers’ season in the rematch in Baltimore. I can report witnessing a stabbing Sunday afternoon.

You must admit that it is months like this which causes folks in Baltimore and Ohio to HATE the Steelers. A month ago, they couldn’t beat the Browns, got spanked by the Ravens and looked for all the world like a team that was ready to be thrown into a hole with a few shovels full of lime, buried and forgotten. Even on Sunday, Ben, much like Sonny Corleone at that toll booth, is caught away from his protective umbrella of ‘thugs’ and Army Rangers, and the Ravens wisely try, successfully it would seem, to kill him. As Roethlisberger’s apparently lifeless carcass is removed from the field, the Steelers must successfully execute a third and 20 play from the shadow of their own end zone led by Joshua Dobbs (WHO?!?). So in the first, and so far only, meaningful play of his NFL career, he completes a pass for 22 yards, then returns to his Play Station and Harry Potter book on the sideline as a resurrected Ben reappears and leads the team to an insurance field goal.

You and I both know what they are saying in Baltimore this week: Fire Harbaugh! So, what are the storylines of the second quarter?

James Connor and the sophomore class

Connor, the AFC Offensive Player of the Month, has managed to accomplish three very impressive things: He has emerged as a national phenom, the star of an offensive group whose quarterback, offensive line and corps of receivers are all of star quality. He has rendered Le’Veon Bell and any drama surrounding his holdout moot. In fact, Bell’s strategy now appears to be one of the costliest business miscalculations that can be imagined. If and when he returns, he will have precious little leverage. Finally, Connor has elevated himself to equal or greater status than draftmates T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith- Schuster, both of whom are also enjoying impressive sophomore campaigns.

The defense begins to gel

It is unlikely that those of us who have loved defensive football will be much impressed with what must pass for defensive mastery in the current offensive skewed era. With that in mind, Baltimore had been considered the state of the art in defensive play in the league through the first half of the season, but Pittsburgh’s group was likely the best unit on the field in this match up. By and large, receivers are not running free in the secondary any more (though there were some blown coverages which, fortunately, the Ravens weren’t able to exploit), runners are not going through the defense like it is tissue paper, and they are consistently getting pressure on the passer. More turnovers would be nice, but they are executing the basics.

Let’s examine a few specifics.

Bud Dupree as William Gay 2.0.

You heard it here first. The idea of Dupree being a failed player is just plain wrong. It took a lot of fans years to let go of that idea related to Gay. Dupree has a touchdown and a safety to his credit so far this season and has proven to be un-blockable at certain key moments. And while we are on the subject of outside linebackers, please don’t sleep on the excellent job being turned in by Anthony Chickillo.

Welcome back Stephon Tuitt. Sean Davis is beginning to master his new job. L.J. Fort is developing into a much better player. And though there is no replacing Ryan Shazier, inside linebacker play is nowhere near the liability that many feared.

But, by far, my favorite player is Mike Hilton. He is the Antonio Brown of the defense. That is to say, to fully appreciate his game you must get beyond the bias of his physical stature.

Al Villanueva and the offensive line

Anyone who wants to level a credible criticism of the Steelers’ coaching staff must first and foremost explain away the phenomena of Big Al, who was plucked from the refuse pile of failed players (and not even the refuse pile of failed offensive tackles…Ed.) and is currently approaching (or has already reached) the elite level of play at one of the most important positions in the game. It is possible that the offensive line, clearly one of the best units in the game last season, has improved. The only concern is the durability of right tackle Marcus Gilbert. However, the silver lining is the discovery that backup Matt Feiler has proven to be more than competent (Hubbard who?) to the point that Tomlin has dusted off ‘the standard is the standard’ line in describing his contributions.

It is not an exaggeration to say that in the second quarter of 2018 Ben only got sacked when he chose to allow it. And, returning briefly to the subject of the negotiating posture of Bell, I am now wondering if, in the same way Ben makes his receivers all look like world beaters at times, the O Line might create a similar boost in the bona fides of a running back.

Randy Fichtner’s offense

I have noticed that my complaints about the offense have shifted. Ben’s tactical decision making and execution can still cause heartburn, but I am not yelling at the television grumbling about formations and play selection generally. I believe that there were only two punts in the second Ravens game, no three and outs. Pittsburgh is now one of the more successful teams in red zone execution, and the idea that they possess the capacity to score from anywhere on the field in minimum time has evolved from a hypothetical to a reality. This has been accomplished with less star power (no Bell or Martavis Bryant), a somewhat muted Antonio Brown and fewer contributions down the depth chart from the wide receiver and running back positions. The opening drive of the second half in Baltimore was simple, yet a thing of beauty, one rarely seen in previous years.

At the risk of seeming petty, I do see the removal of Haley in Cleveland a validation of my rantings about the malpractice I thought was characteristic of his regime in Pittsburgh.

Vance, Joshua and 3

Let’s stick with coaching and team management for a while longer. Three is the magic number for Head Coach Mike Tomlin to extend his unblemished record of never having a losing season. He is accomplishing that via decisions made months ago whose wisdom and values often don’t manifest until much later, too late for the short attention spans of many fans.

Steelers fans were familiar with Joe Haden, so not much needed to be done to sell the Nation on the value of adding him to the mix. But Vance McDonald? He showed flashes of being value added, but frankly, spent too much of last season hurt, a situation that continued through the off season. Haden’s impact has been obvious and predictable, but it is becoming clear that a healthy McDonald elevates a competent tight end room to a much higher level.

I made fun of Dobbs earlier, but that one play clarified and validated so much that (again those short attention spans) we had forgotten. Remember that fans and the media universally wrote Dobbs off in favor of the imagined promise of Mason Rudolph and the known, comforting mediocrity of Landry Jones. Dobbs was allowed the opportunity to prevail, something the mob was unwilling to do. What we got as a result was the most inspiring contribution by a Steelers backup quarterback since Charlie Batch’s farewell performance in the same stadium years ago. The odds are still against Dobbs’ long-term future being with Pittsburgh, which is a shame, but one thing is certain, this young man does have a future in this league, and probably not just as a back-up.

This is what great leadership looks like. There was a shot of Tomlin on the sideline, his fist defiantly in the air as Jesse James was running down the field on the long pass play from Ben following Dobbs’ drive extending play. One couldn’t help but realize that he is the only coach in the division who is certain to have his job next season, and probably a lot longer than that.

Boswell’s struggles

A running joke in Steelers Nation is Ike Taylor Disease, the malady that prevents the afflicted from reliably being able to catch a football. Chris Boswell seems to be struggling through a bout of Suisham’s disease. Known mainly by Steelers fans who reside in the Washington DC area, it characterized Shaun Suisham’s play when he was playing for Washington, though he seemed to have it licked when he came to Pittsburgh. One has to wonder whether it might flare up at just the wrong moment in December or January.

The path forward

While we are definitely in a so-far-so-good phase, we are still deep in the woods of this season. Given the performances of the remaining opponents, going .500 or worse in the second half could happen without it being considered a collapse. The first test comes almost immediately in the form of a Carolina team who, besides being very good, also brings the danger of threatening the one positive aspect of this season that has yet to be discussed: The health of the team.

I hate a lot of things about Thursday Night football, but what I hate the most is that it is a perfect environment for a night of carnage resulting from teams who have insufficient time to recover from their efforts of only a few short days earlier. Getting past Thursday in good health and with a win would be huge. The Chargers, Saints and Patriots are all capable of thwarting Pittsburgh’s best efforts, and the Bengals may be desperate enough or vengeful enough to present a problem at the end. That being said, the prospects for a winning season and a playoff berth look good at this time.

Finally, we should not lose sight of the larger context in which this is all being played out. Beating the Browns and the Ravens on successive weeks would be a balm to the community in the most mundane of times. Unfortunately, this is not a mundane time. The Steelers are well aware that though their efforts are nothing more than a distraction from the grieving of the Squirrel Hill tragedy, distractions can help. As some of you may know, I have written about how the Immaculate Reception and Pittsburgh’s first playoff win served as a welcome distraction for me and my family just a couple of short weeks after losing my mother. We would be just as wrong to argue that what the Steelers do means nothing as it would be to say that it plays any sort of central role in healing. The fact is that them playing well and winning at this time helps. And that gives us both a richer incentive to wish them well, and to keep it all in proper context moving forward. Let us hope that the Steelers can continue to add a little joy at a difficult time.

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