Steven Nelson and Sean Davis: Karl Rosen photo, Steelers.com
by Ivan Cole
The Disclaimer. It has always been my standard practice when discussing the possibilities of any new season to caution that all is subject to change based upon the potential impact of an unavoidable factor in the NFL dynamic: Injuries.
Usually I have spoken of this in the manner of those commercials where a narrator in rapid fire fashion attempts to slip past you the possibility that in addition to the wonders provided by the product they are selling, there is also a chance that it could kill you. In this segment there will be a deeper dive into the Disclaimer, providing a more specific set of arguments and information related to just how injuries might play out as anything from an annoyance to a derailment of the 2019 Steelers’ championship aspirations.
Question # 2: Who do we not want to see on a long-term injury report?
We begin with a basic assumption that informs all that follows: All injuries are not the same in terms of their impact on a team’s fortunes. For the past several years the Steelers have been very fortunate in the area of injuries. It is not a matter of having not suffered from any. No team in the league is that lucky, rather, they have avoided for the most part those losses that could severely affect the team’s ability to function at an acceptable level of competitiveness. There is a truth that must be acknowledged that all the sloganeering and mythmaking about the ‘next man up’ and ‘the standard is the standard’ cannot gloss over: Even in the rarified environment of a 53 man NFL roster there are players who are expendable and others who are not. Let’s make some distinctions.
- Some losses degrade the entertainment experience but have less of an impact on competitiveness. A great current example would be rookie linebacker Devin Bush. The quality of his contribution to the team’s success is completely unknown at this time, but we would be deeply disappointed if he were not available for play. Losing Joe Haden would be another matter altogether.
- Certain losses can be tolerated without any discernible degradation in play. Think Olasunkanmi Adeniyi (or just meditate on the pronunciation) and Cameron Sutton. While a too doctrinaire adherence to the standard is the standard is a bit much, it does not mean it is without truth or value.
- In some cases, though it may not be ideal, a reduction in effectiveness can be compensated for by others stepping up. Marcus Gilbert’s injury last season did not cause the offensive line to fall apart but provided the opportunity for Matt Feiler, Chuks Okorafor and others to step up. It could be argued that because of the supplemental personnel available it established Gilbert as expendable and could be part of the explanation of why he is no longer part of the team.
- Other factors include the type, timing and duration of an injury. A few weeks in dry dock early or in the middle of the season is one thing (Sutton, Haden) injured reserve for the year (Adeniyi, Jerald Hawkins) is something else.
- And Rebecca would add that some injuries resulting in long-term IR can be highly convenient—as was Ola Adeniyi’s injury last summer. It allows the team to stash away a promising player who isn’t ready to take a roster spot and who might well not make it through waivers. His injury last week was not quite so convenient…
What follows is my assessment of the twelve players likely to be part of the 53 who should deeply concern us, should they end up on a long-term injury list this season. They will be presented in relatively ascending order. Naturally, debate and discussion are both welcome and expected.
Sean Davis. The first three selections may not seem as obvious because of the nature of their contributions to the team. Their presence may not be noticed because so much of the value of their play is in facilitating the efforts of those around them. When they are not in or ineffective, we notice something amiss but may not be able to identify what is wrong. When discussing the strengths of the Steelers’ secondary Davis’ name is rarely among the first players mentioned. To me, he is somewhat reminiscent of Ryan Clark, whose presence allowed Troy Polamalu (and before that the late Sean Taylor of Washington) the freedom to be great, in addition to making great plays in his own right.
Stephon Tuitt. Not the top guy in his position group but besides being an incredibly disruptive force when he is playing at the top of his game is also a facilitator of the other linemen and linebackers that surround him and amplifies their effectiveness.
Alejandro Villanueva. The importance of his position would be reason enough to appear on this list—something many casual fans may tend to overlook or not understand. Add to that him being at the top of the class league-wide in the quality of his play, and then factor in the intangibles of leadership and toughness.
James Connor. You might wonder about the relatively low ranking that this Pro Bowl running back is being given. One of the unintended consequences of the antics and absences of Le’Veon Bell is that he inadvertently provided evidence in making the case for the reduced value of running backs in today’s NFL. Connor, and before him, DeAngelo Williams demonstrated that an adequate running attack could be had without having superstar caliber running talent. Similar trends are occurring with nose tackles and return specialists, which is why Javon Hargrave won’t be part of this list. Losing Connor would be something we would prefer not to see, but it would not be a bad bet that Jaylan Samuels, Roosevelt Nix, Bennie Snell Jr and Trey Edmunds could stand in the gap and deliver.
Joe Haden. There are three things Haden brings which are difficult to replace. He has the talent to play competitively against the best receivers in the league. He brings strong veteran leadership, essential for a relatively young team, not just to the locker room but to the field of play. Most importantly, as demonstrated against the Patriots last season, he plays big in big games. A lot of players can throttle an opponent on a Dolphin team in October but come off as average at best on the largest stages.
T.J. Watt. Watt is developing similar traits to Haden and is ranked higher because of his position. Those factors are more front and center throughout the course of the game. Less veteran leadership for now, but this is just a matter of time. There is no doubt concerning both his talent and the bigness of his play.
Maurkice Pouncey. The distribution of virtues is a little different here relative to others. His leadership is what puts him off the charts. Under ordinary circumstances the team is fortunate to have a player of the caliber of a B. J. Finney who can technically execute the position. However, what Pouncey brings as leader of the position group, the offense and the team is irreplaceable.
JuJu Smith-Schuster. Another player who, despite his playful, irreverent aura, displays that consistent ability to step up in big time situations (which is what made his fumble in the Saints game such a devastating moment—it was so out of character). In addition, he now must shoulder the responsibilities of being the #1 receiver. Moreover, the loss of Coach Drake and the potential cascading effect throughout that room easily makes the case
Chris Boswell. Assuming he makes the team without incident, a midseason injury when there may be few, if any replacements available of similar ability would be difficult to overcome. What he provides is simply not easily replaceable. The case is easily made that the lack of productivity at his position was the difference between making the playoffs and not last season. (Which is a very kind way of putting it, Ivan…)
Cam Heyward. His value is most like that of Pouncey, and his productivity may be even harder to replace given the system and the other talent available.
Vance McDonald. This is a very straight forward issue. Tight end is the thinnest, most fragile position group on the team. If McDonald goes down, as of this writing, the whole unit, and with it, much of the offensive balance goes down the toilet. (Which is why so many of the local beat writers assume the Steelers are going to pick up a veteran at some point.)
Ben Roethlisberger. It makes for a nice diverting parlor game to discuss the relative merits of Dobbs vs Rudolph vs Hodges, but if we are doing anything in the coming weeks other than speaking in terms of any of them doing more than a little mop-up duty in the wake of a rout, Steeler Nation is screwed. It bears repeating as often as we must: Homer, Rebecca and I checked when we were in Latrobe. There are no trees that grow franchise quarterbacks. (Western PA may be the cradle of quarterbacks, but they appear to be produced in the usual way.)
If Ben goes down, winning a championship will not be impossible. The ’68 Colts, ’72 Dolphins and the ’74 and ’76 Steelers got far with rather dicey situations at quarterback. But just because it is theoretically possible to drive a car with your feet while drunk, it is not something that sober folk would recommend.
Next: The Receivers
Note: As usual all italicized comments are editorial (in other words, by Rebecca) and Ivan cannot be blamed for them…