Fresh Eyes: Part 1

Screen Shot 2019-08-14 at 9.26.23 AMphoto: Rebecca Mehling/Steelers.com

by Ivan Cole

As Rebecca has already mentioned, life has slowed both of us down a bit but that should not be construed to mean that interest has been lost in the fortunes of the Steelers. For me it represents an opportunity to approach the upcoming season in a manner opposite from that which has been the case since I have been privileged to communicate with you concerning the fortunes of what I believe to be a model of what a first class organization, in sports or any endeavor is, as it strives to reach its goals. 

The norms have been such in recent years that those who report on the NFL have had to pretend that there is more legitimate news than actually exists. This has resulted in all manner of speculation, fortune telling, creation of controversy—all designed to generate clicks and conversation and, presumably, interest during a period when little of real relevance is going on. This season I circumstances have freed me from all of this, and I am going to take advantage as best I can. 

Let me be clear from the outset: I probably know a lot less about the state of the team than many of you reading at this point. What I will be bringing is a set of fresh eyes, augmented with a bit of experience, to raise what I believe will be some of the important questions. The answers may very well help to define the relative success of the 2019 season. There is no particular order of importance of how they will be presented. 

Question #1. Whose (or what) loss from 2018 poses the greatest challenge to team success going forward?

The answer to this question has become dramatically and tragically complicated in the last forty-eight hours, but the bottom line hasn’t changed. 

The casual, mainline answer would have seemed to be the loss of Killer ‘B’s Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. I say no. Recent events have rendered this decision more obvious, but even absent the more outrageous of their recent antics I believe it is important to establish why certain assumptions about team building have to be challenged. 

I decided that for this series a good point of reference would be the 2008 team, the last one to win the Super Bowl. One thing stands out: Compared to many of the less successful teams that preceded and followed, they weren’t an outstandingly talented team. In several keys areas they were quite the contrary, which made the absurd assertion that Tomlin was winning with Bill Cowher’s players even more so given that some of those players weren’t that good. 

That ’08 team’s running backs featured Willie Parker, who was still effective but not as incandescent as he was during the championship season in ’05. He also had some struggles with injuries. Rookie Rashard Mendenhall was knocked out early in the season by Ray Lewis, meaning that there were times when the feature running back was Mewelde Moore, who qualifies as an answer to a trivia question. The receivers included Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, whose substance issues resulted in a critical one game suspension that contributed to a loss to the Peyton Manning led Colts, and the immensely talented but enigmatic Limas Sweed, who at critical moments could not catch a cold. Viewed purely in terms of talent, an impressive group, but things were more complicated in practice.

Currently, I am comfortable saying that Bell and Brown give with their talent but then take via their character flaws. Right now, the good people in Oakland and New York are reduced to hoping that the talent that will be on display during the season will be sufficient to offset the disruptions each player is causing. While at Latrobe I didn’t hear of anyone pining for the Steelers to have that kind of problem. And why should they?

James Connor is a Pro Bowl running back. The other players in the room compare favorably with that ’08 group at least. And besides, when did Bell actually play? As for the receivers, it could be argued that Brown’s demands for the ball served to suppress the potential of this group. Connor, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald are each dangerous, dominant receivers in their own right, with Jaylan Samuels, James Washington, Ryan Switzer, Eli Rogers, among others, capable of developing in a similar manner, particularly giving the amplifying nature of playing with Ben. I have come to the theory that some of the distortions and maddening inconsistencies of the Steelers’ offense recently was in an attempt to work around the demands of Brown. We’ll see. 

So, if not those two, then who? My vote would be for Mike Munchak. 

It should be amazing for anyone who has been following the team for more than a decade and has a decent memory to note the casualness in which it is asserted that the Steelers possess one of, if not the best offensive lines in the league. It was inarguable in 2008 that the O line was the weakest unit on the team. All Pro guard Alan Faneca and Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings were gone. The best remaining player left tackle, Marvel Smith, was on injured reserve. Guard Kendall Simmons was forced into retirement due to complications related to diabetes. That left us with the likes of Jeff Hartwig, Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton. Cowher’s players indeed. These guys won the Super Bowl playing the toughest schedule anyone had seen in thirty years and managed a number two seed.  No coaching involved though.

Today the offensive line is the strongest unit on the team. From right guard to left tackle it either has two All Pro and one Pro Bowl player, or viewed more conservatively, three Pro Bowl players. The rest of the unit is deep and versatile and populated as much by undrafted free agents as blue chippers. 

The fortunate thing is that if I am right, the impact of his loss will almost certainly not be felt this season unless there is a rash of key injuries. And it may not be felt at all if he was successful in coaching his most important student—his successor Shaun Sarrett.

Now there is a wild card at play. I will address, later in this series, the complexities involved with the receivers room moving on from Antonio Brown. The sudden passing of their coach Darryl Drake…well, do I have to say anymore?

Next: Injuries  

     

17 comments

  • Don (aka cold_old_steelers_fan)

    Ivan, I think you may be spot on about Munchak but I am hoping you are wrong. There wasn’t a lot of cohesion in the o-line during the game but, being mostly backups, they hadn’t had much time to gel together as a line. I hope we will see a much more cohesive and successful unit during week 1.

    The battle for the back-up WR spots should be interesting. Ju-Ju, Moncrief (assuming injury doesn’t do him in), and Washington are all shoo-ins. I think our 2nd round rookie (mind blank on name), Switzer and Holton round out the room. I am not a fan of Eli Rodgers (he seems soft to me, which is probably really a dumb comment but it is how I feel). Spencer might edge out Switzer but I would be surprised. According to reports, Holton has looked good in non-receiving drills and will probably be a ST ace. Injuries could change things but until they happen, this is my expectations.

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  • How many picks did Ben throw trying to placate Brown? He could be double covered by Darrell Green and Dion Sanders with Ronnie Lott and Ed Reed over the top and Brown would still throw a temper tantrum over Ben not throwing his way.

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    • That will be interesting to watch, but this could be a chicken-egg type argument. Ben DID force the ball to Brown often. And a lot has been made of the picks he threw when trying to do that. However, Brown also came away with a lot of those passes.

      Either way, if anyone had doubts that the Steelers made the right decision, events of the last few weeks should erase those.

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  • The addition of Munchak and subtraction of Arians was huge for the steelers a few years ago. Bruce Arians has so much to like, but his total disregard for o line was continued here with the cardinals. He’s a great coach in most ways, but here in phoenix the cardinals offenses looked much like the old steelers. Good (sometimes) skill position players, no o line. Munchak showed us the importance of the line. I feel like i should have already known that, but a good team hides their flaws. Hopefully coach Starrett can take up where he left off. Bell and Brown are great, but flawed, players. Bell’s loss a year ago wasn’t devastating. I think the loss of Brown won’t be much worse than that.

    Thank you for coming back Ivan. Love your takes on this stuff.

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    • Thanks. Good to be back. Hope we can have some fun this year

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    • Agreed. Back during the difficult start in 2013 (or it might have been 2014) Jim Wexell made an off hand comment about Arians, in effect saying that he had zero interest in building up the offensive line. The Steelers got away with it, for a while, but it caught up with them.

      While having Munchak on board was HUGE, let’s not forget that the Steelers 2013 offensive line finished the season much stronger than it had started it, and Sarrett was a big reason for that. I’d also argue that if Much was the consummate teacher, then he probably actively mentored Sarrett.

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    • Bruce Arians has the distinction of being the only Steeler I ever hated. As Luck would have his retirement just validates my hatred of BA & his QB breaker system

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  • Great article Ivan. The comparison to 2008 was very relevant. However, I would quibble with your point about Mewlede Moore. For my money, he’s long been the unsung hero of the 2008 season. No, he doesn’t belong up there with franchise greats, but he was a good number 2 running back, at least in 2008.

    I’d also argue that the Steelers backfield depth in 2008 was a big reason for their success. When Parker and Mendenhall got hurt, the Steelers had Moore and Gary Russell to turn to. Contrast that with the last several years.

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    • Agreed about MeMo. Moore was exactly the kind of player that both Chuck Noll and Mike Tomlin have always loved. A simply brilliant guy, both on and off the field. His skill set was good, his versatility was outstanding. He could and would do anything you asked him to do, you could plug him in and be confident he would seldom make a mistake. He was clubhouse gold, and you never had to worry about seeing his name in the paper on a Sunday or Monday morning during the offseason in a story with the words, “according to police reports.*” He gave to the community in the off-season and still does.

      In other words, Chuck Noll and Mike Tomlin saw a lot of their younger selves in Mewelde Moore. He was a blue collar guy who worked his butt off, did his job, and didn’t boast or bag. That make him a true Steeler.

      * Unless it involved the whole damned Vikings team and a boat.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is ironic that you mention Moore not caring if his name got into the paper because it didn’t. He happened to sign the same day that Ben signed his first 100 million dollar deal, so all he got in the Trib and PG was a stub. Fine, I thought something more in depth will come in a day or so.

        Nope.

        John Harris did something on him during the dead time in June, but that was about it.

        Heck, coaches seemed to ignore him, as they turned to Carey Davis when Mendenhall got hurt in Baltimore.

        Yet I think Moore ripped off like a 10 yard run on his first carry against Jacksonville the following week…

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  • Homer watched a couple of practices and the two pre-season games and is optimistic, but the phrase, “it ain’t soup yet” keeps coming to mind. The OL looks good. Feiler will be fine. The OL backups show some promise. Okafor ain’t soup yet. The LB’s look really good, and both Ulysees Gilbert III and Tuzar Skipper look like true candidates for the Redman Award. Homer loves great names, and those two deserve to make the roster simply because of their names. We’ve never cut a Tuzar before. (Of course, we had never cut a Crezdon before Butler came along, and we did, so you never know.) Benny Snell looks like a keeper. Forget the YPC stats. He’s getting first downs on short yardage, and when you need one and get two, that’s all that matters. Samuels is our Swiss Army Knife, and a good one.

    Diontae Johnson looks like Mr Inconsistency. He has the speed, the moves, and can light up the field. He is both incandescent and inconsistent. His drops – both on passes and kick returns – can and will kill you. He showed all of that last night. His hands remind me a little of that Limas guy. He could be great. Or he could make Yinzers end it all by jumping out their basement windows. Nuff said.

    QB we got four. We’re gonna see a lot of Dobbs because either he wins the number two spot (he’s smarter and more athletic than Rudolph, runs a thousand times better, and has a strong arm on deep stuff) or he gets showcased and some team who loses a QB in pre-season will trade a draft choice for him. Is he a better back up than 168-year old Methusaleh McNown? The real worry is can we somehow protect Hodges on the PS or will we begin the season with only two QB’s? TBH, Homer thinks any of the four of them could start in the NFL, although with Hodges that’s maybe two years off.

    The defensive secondary, which has been a weakness, looks much, much better, albeit playing much of the time against second string QB’s. That kid Kelly from the Defunct Sandlot League is intriguing. And some of the other guys, like Sutton, seem to have stepped up their game.

    The worry here is TE, if something happens to Fragile Vance.

    There’s lots more to say, but the Steelers right now are very much a work in progress. We know what the first stringers can do, and Tomlin has had the luxury of watching the rest of the 90 during camp and pre-season games. What we’re seeing now ain’t soup yet, but both Ivan and Homer think this roster is loaded.

    It ain’t soup yet, but when it is, it could be quite tasty.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Thanks for all the input, folks! There’s a new post up, although for some incomprehensible reason WordPress has chosen to put it below this one, and I can’t seem to fix it…

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