Fresh Eyes: Part VI
photo Karl Rosen, Steelers.com
by Ivan Cole
Question #6: What might the path to a championship look like for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019?
Though the 53-man roster and practice squad are basically set as I begin to write this, matters still feel as if they are in a state of flux. Nonetheless, the major disclaimers have been accounted for and most questions concerning how this particular team will address this season’s challenges have either been answered or clarified. The purpose here is to frame the issues that may make the difference between success and disappointment in the coming weeks.
Talent, or specifically its lack, will not be the determining factor for 2019. If anything, with one glaring exception (tight end), the Steelers have, broadly speaking, an embarrassment of riches across the roster. When I have been asked about this team over the past weeks my response has been consistent: “They’re loaded”.
Consider who got cut or were considered to be on the bubble. What other year would players the caliber of Eli Rogers and Johnny Holton be cut (with Holton being eventually retained on the practice squad), not for substandard performance but a lack of spectacular play? The same could be said regarding Brian Allen, with Marcus Allen and Trey Edmunds salvaged to the practice squad. Just as interesting is that there was conversation about pushing out Roosevelt Nix, Tyler Matakevich, Artie Burns and Anthony Chickillo, though there has been no discernible drop off in performance (and in the case of Burns, a return to a higher level). Sutton Smith is just gone.
The perception that talent would be the problem centers upon the departure of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The media, particularly the national media with many fans obediently following their lead, decided that this would be a crippling blow. This reflects, in my opinion, a shallow understanding of what is important to championship success.
In Part II of this series I advanced the theory that, apart from their level of talent and entertainment value, some players are more essential to team success than others. In other words, their absence due to injury is more problematic. You could be forgiven if, based upon the promotional hype surrounding the concept of the Killer ‘Bs’, concluding that Bell, Brown and Ben Roethlisberger were equally valuable to the fortunes of the team. They are not.
In Part V I point out that the efforts of some of the greatest running backs to ever play the game did not, generally speaking, translate into championship appearances or trophies. Haven’t done any research, but the impact of wide receivers would seem to me intuitively to be even less.
I don’t want to hit on this too hard. It would have been better to have them than not. And if you do have them you would be foolish to not maximize their ability to produce. But it is on this point that an illusion exists which would encourage us to believe that their outsized contributions makes them essential to an extent they are not. The Patriots, just to cite one easy example, have managed to win championships with running backs and receivers that are more pedestrian. Absent AB and Bell, the Pittsburgh front line skills players are quite good.
I outlined my thoughts about this position in Part V, but let’s review some of the events of the 2010 season which may add some useful perspective.
If Steeler Nation has developed some unrealistic expectations about the quarterback position, this may well have been its genesis. There were four QBs in camp: Ben, Byron Leftwich, who was viewed as a legitimate Franchise quarterback in his own right based on his previous experience with Jacksonville, Charlie Batch, a solid, starter who helmed Detroit previously and Dennis Dixon, a bright young talent with plenty of potential.
Ben was slated to serve a six-game suspension at the beginning of the year (later reduced to four). The belief was that Leftwich would be the logical backup, with Dixon being # 3 and Batch being the odd man out. Batch wasn’t even getting any reps in practices or games. Probably no disrespect intended, but whoever the selected replacement was would need to have plenty of reps. Then both Leftwich and Dixon suffered injuries, and Batch, 4th on the depth chart, led the team to a 4-1 start on their way to a Super Bowl appearance.
Who cares who is #2 behind Ben?
As for Ben, what should be encouraging for Steelers fans is that there is no need to over-compensate for the absence of AB and Bell. In fact, if the team that has been constructed for 2019 can deliver at or near its potential, particularly on defense, then all that is necessary is for Roethlisberger to remain healthy and perform at a typical (for him) level, nothing more.
The special challenges for Ben will be how quickly he establishes the necessary rapport with a very young receiver corps, as well as having to take on an atypical leadership role with this group. Some of this has already been occurring over the course of the summer with Ben being present in the receiver’s room in a mentoring capacity.
I believe that the role of the offense is returning to something more resembling Steelers tradition, where success is more of a shared enterprise of the offense in partnership with a highly effective defense. This is a shift from the notion that the offense must carry the team and consistently generate a high level of points, which also fed the perception that AB and Bell were essential to the team’s success.
Because of the bias to focus primarily on the so-called skill positions it may pass unnoticed that the winning difference with this team will probably be the offensive line. It is not mere partisan hype to assert that they may well be the best in a business, which if you have been following this team for the last decade at least is a rather astonishing paradigm shift in itself.
Specifically, this unit serves to minimize two vulnerabilities that could derail the offense: They keep Ben both upright and with time to maximize his strengths, and they can facilitate a balanced attack that is not solely reliant on Ben’s performance. This second point demands emphasis in that it must be accepted that part of Ben’s character is to be tempted by low percentage decisions which result in ineffectiveness at best, disaster at worse.
Overall, beyond the threat of injury the offense is solid. Even at tight end there is a world of difference between being thin, which is the real issue here, and being incompetent. Keep in mind that, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, Steeler Nation has something of a fetish about tight ends; Heath nostalgia, Gronk envy, who knows?
The bottom line for this offense is that unless what is brewing on the other side of the ball is a complete mirage, all that will be necessary for success will be to stay in their lane. They must be capable of a balanced attack, which is not the same as saying that they should feel duty bound to do so in any specific circumstance. If the defense delivers on its promise the offense will not have to score as many points, and may have more opportunities and better field position in order to do so. If they can continue to deliver upon their success in the red zone, especially touchdowns, they will be fine.
It is on this side of things where the excitement and the possibilities lie. With the understanding that what passes for defensive dominance is defined down in this era, I am both fascinated and encouraged by what Tomlin and his staff is attempting to do. It remains to be seen if and when they jell, but there can be no question that both the talent and depth is present. If it happens it will probably come as a surprise to many observers. Like the offensive line, defensive excellence can be overlooked, due perhaps to fantasy football values.
This group has been overshadowed by both the offensive line and whomever plays behind them, whether they be good or bad. But—and I don’t say this lightly—when healthy there have been moments when this group has been virtually unblockable. Just as we don’t talk nearly enough about the improvement in red zone effectiveness by the offense, too little is being said about the Steelers pass rush, best in the league I think, and not solely due to linebacker play.
For me the most surprising and encouraging story is that of Dan McCullers. Frankly, referencing back to scapegoating, count me as one who thought Big Dan was a failed experiment, no matter what John Mitchell said. Overall, this group is on a trajectory to be in a conversation comparing them in ways with Smith/Hampton/Keisel, as well as the original Steel Curtain, as they display positive characteristics relative to both groups.
As we know, Mike Tomlin is not one given to making a lot of promiscuous statements of praise, which makes comments he made over the summer concerning rookie Devin Bush and the duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree all the more significant.
The need to accommodate the potential and depth of this position group was such that its impact has been felt across the entire roster.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think the work that is being done with this group makes me feel that someone is playing possum. Solve the challenge of shutdown or takeaway (whichever comes first) and a clear path to a Lombardi presents itself. The pieces they possess for this puzzle are, like the linebackers, qualified and deep. The important question remains—if and when will they jell.
As stated earlier, talent, though crucial to success, will not be the issue on which the 2019 Steelers rise or fall. Consider the following:
- If and when will this team learn how to win. I am not speaking to simply scoring more points than an opponent. The term On Any Given Sunday is correct as far as it goes, but the ability to deliver week in and week out to the point of being a playoff caliber team is something altogether different. Most teams don’t do it consistently. Further, there is a championship level of winning that even relatively great teams fail to reach. Cincinnati, Minnesota, Carolina and Atlanta come immediately to mind as examples. It is this quality that the Patriots possess in spades. And it is this issue, not talent, which will be the principle challenge for Cleveland this season. I suspect it is one of the reasons the Steelers and Ravens react to the Browns threat with yawns. Cleveland has the ability to win individual games, maybe even a bunch of them, but can they transform their culture to change the balance of power over the long haul? Pittsburgh has less ground to cover in this regard and a more supportive culture, but they are the most difficult steps of all.
- How do they handle adversity? It doesn’t have to be a big thing: A key injury, an unexpected (trap game) loss or a losing streak. They are already amid such a circumstance in the aftermath of the Darryl Drake passing.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Interestingly, the two entities who are probably the most disinterested in the outcome of the Sunday’s opener are the Patriots and the Steelers. Each knows that if there is going to be an important encounter between these teams it will be coming in January. Like a marathon, consistent pace and then ramping it up toward the critical portion of the race (December) is key. This is part of the formula of learning how to win at a championship level
- Leadership. All the above necessitates a lot of good leadership stepping to the fore. There is a core group that includes the captains (Ben, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward and Rosie Nix) and a few others (Ramon Foster, Joe Haden, Vince Williams). Some more will have to assert themselves. My votes go for Alejandro Villanueva, Donte Moncrief, James Connor, T.J. Watt and Sean Davis.