I asked RickVa if he would write a series of posts this year on BTSC. Once before the season, and then once every four games. His ability to conceptualize the bigger picture and write compelling prose made him an obvious choice for the series of posts. Many thanks to him for his latest installment in the series. - Blitz - (Michael B.)
Some observations after completing the first quarter of the season. - RickVa
What an exciting month. Four games, each one up for grabs until the end. The Champs win two and drop two. And yes, it coulda, shoulda been 3-1, or even 4-0. Coulda been 1-3 too. There are a lot of interesting things to talk about as we move forward, but I am going to begin by talking about the Steeler Nation meltdown.
...Are you feeling blessed?
That's how I began my last major post a month ago just prior to the beginning of the season. The answer from entirely too many members of Steeler Nation has been 'Hell no'! Putting aside a very stubborn optimistic streak, I certainly acknowledge that the season has begun in a manner that has been surprising and somewhat disorienting. And while I am sure that many, if not most fans have taken developments in stride, a considerable minority have put the lie to the notion of Steelers fans being knowledgeable and sophisticated. Passionate? Absolutely. They have been pushing the panic button early, loud and often. Let's see if we can keep a few things in pespective.
It's September football. Super Bowls are rarely won or lost in September (although a 1-3 or 0-4 record would have placed us in a very uncomfortable hole. We should all be grateful we're not the Titans). The networks and journalists have to sell newspapers and beer in the early fall as well later in the year. Consequently, a week four matchup between a 3-0 and 2-1 team takes on the pretensions of being the Apocalypse. I wouldn't suggest that anyone book a hotel in south Florida for February just yet.
Two years ago the Steelers blew out of the gate but were a tired team by December and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, teams like the Ravens, Colts, Giants, Broncos and Saints look terrific now; and teams like the Steelers, Patriots and Eagles appear to be stumbling. Let's see where things stand at Thanksgiving.
Most of us are fans for a reason; we are not knowledgeable enough, skilled enough or patient enough to be anything else. I live in the Washington DC area and folks down here are living a nightmare because their team has been run into the ground by a 'fan' named Daniel Snyder. Down here it's say that if they held the Super Bowl in March the Skins would win every year. This year it would have been for the acqusition of Alvin Haynesworth. Snyder runs his operation like its fantasy football. We have different issues. Many Steelers fans seem to get overly enamored with whatever boy wonder materializes in training camp in August. For a couple of years it was Harris, this year its Redman. Mendenhall's performance this week would have been impossible if the lunatic fringe had been in control. They would have run him out of town (along with the O-Line) weeks ago. We're entitled to our impatience and/or fantasies of course, but I know too many people who are having difficulty enjoying the ride because they believe that Tomlin is an "idiot" as well as the entire Steeler brain trust.
Where we stand. On one hand we are one game off pace of where we were last year at this time.The worse part is that the loss to Cincinnati put us into a chase position as far as the division title is concerned. It also opened the door for the Bengals to be players in division affairs for the first time in several years. And from what we saw this weekend, while they probably won't be in the running for the title, the Browns are in position to be a nuisance. We can control our own destiny, but games such as this week's matchup between the Ravens and Bengals will go a long way in determining how difficult that task will be. One the other hand we are playing much better than we were a year ago. The difference in the offense is night and day. Remember in the fourth game last year vs the Ravens the offense was being mercilessly booed because they couldn't generate drives, or even first downs. In fact, there are some interesting parallels as to how that game and this year's game against the Bengals played out. While there have been some bumps in the road with special teams, specifically Jeff Reed's inconsistent performance, it is hardly in the same category as the cringe inducing activities of last year's crew. Defense has been a bit disappointing compared to last year, but this is all relative. They are not playing badly, but not nearly as dominant as we have come to expect. Of course, this begs the question: if the Steelers are playing so much better why the inferior results? Let me give this a shot.
Super Bowl hangover? Nah, I don't think so. It's true that in some respects the team isn't as sharp as it probably could be or will be, but this is by and large a good thing. The one thing nobody wants is a team that peaks too early. There have been some errors by some of the younger and less experienced players. But it wouldn't be wise to make too much of this. Frankly, the difference between being 2-2 and 4-0 probably boils down to two plays that were not made. The difference, I think, is that teams are trying beat us at our own game. The Bears and Bengals managed to succeed. What do I mean by "our own game"? I believe that as fans we underestimate the extent that championship teams are the subject of intense scrutiny. How did they do it? Careers and millions of dollars hang in the balance. What did the league learn from the Steelers this past year? Tomlin stated it straight up at the trophy ceremony in Tampa; "Steelers football is sixty minutes. It isn't pretty, forget about style points." The Bears and the Bengals beat us essentially in the same manner that we beat the Ravens (twice), Chargers, Cowboys, Jaguars and took the Colts, Eagles and Giants to the brink. Sixty minutes of perseverance. Stay close and then sprint to the finish line. Winning ugly is still winning. Add the fact that in many respects the Steelers play their best ball from behind. This year we have been jumping out to strong early leads. We are more psychologically suited when we are playing under duress or threat. It's hard not to let up a bit when you feel that you are dominating an opponent. However, the offense showed signs that they are learning how to be ruthless and remaining focused for four quarters against the Chargers.
Defense. How did the defense go from strength tp (relative) weakness; unable to generate turnovers or shutdown other offenses late in the game? Three possibilities come to mind. Number one: Troy. I don't like this one because I hate to think that the loss of one player could be so catastrophic. But I do have to acknowledge that Troy is an exceptional player who seemed on his way to reaching a level of performance in some unknown, higher dimension when Crumpler so rudely fell on his knee. Number two: the various offensive geniuses around the league went into their labs this spring and solved LeBeau's scheme. Possible, but too simplistic for my taste. Number three, and my preference: the chess match. If I were LeBeau I wouldn't show much of anything in September, just enough of an vanilla defense that should allow the team to muddle through some wins. After Halloween I break out the 'What the Hell?' packages that no one will be able to figure out until March of next year.
Ben. As mentioned last month, Ben is, indeed, much better. He's playing with great confidence, using all available weapons and is very accurate. He's being sacked less (Thanks O-line! More about them in a moment),being hit less, intercepted less. He's currently leading the League in completion percentage. You heard it here first; with Ben at the helm this is an offense that can now regularly score in the 30s and above. Lets see what happens in another month.
O-Line. Okay, let me begin. I apologize to Willie Colon because I didn't think he was capable of being good enough to do what he's doing now. I humbly suggest that the rest of you get right with God as well. I certainly wouldn't be preparing busts for Canton, but this group is coalescing into a competent unit. Ben is getting time, the running backs are beginning to get lanes. Let me be blunt, its time to shut the Hell up about the offensive line. Particularly when you consider that players like Kemoeatu and Essex are in their second and first years as starters. They are growing very nicely.
B. A. Any problems with run/pass balance? Or with anything else? Sorry, but we're fast approaching the point where critics of Arians will appear increasingly to seem mean spirited and out of touch. His philosophy may not be your cup of tea, but it is successful.
Cary Davis. I used to be in the Cary Davis must go crowd. I just couldn't see what the team saw in the guy. I've changed my mind. I remember the AFC Championship game where Davis was responsible for knocking at least two Ravens out of the game on special teams. Then there was an interview of a number of his teammates after he was cut. Reading between the lines it seemed clear to me that players like Colon and Ben were not happy that he had been cut. As fans we tend to overestimate what we know about what goes on in the lockerroom. I don't think that Davis will ever be a significant offensive contributor to be valued by the average fan. But I am coming to the belief that he is strong leader on this team and will probably hang in on this roster for the rest of season.
Limas Mendenhall. The discussion last week was about the 2008 draft class being a bust. One poster on BTSC labeled Mendenhall "Ms. Mendy". I guess that Sunday may only be a fluke. Maybe Mendenhall is too soft, runs to high, etc., etc. Of course it is also possible that some of us are impatient idiots that don't know what we are talking about. Just sayin'. I make the point because popular opinion states that Limas Sweed should become intimately acquainted with the undercarriage of the bus. Don't get me wrong, he has made some mistakes, but writing him off is a bigger mistake than anything he's done. Ncoolong's post on 10/3/09 makes the point more eloquently, but it's not that he's dropping balls. He's making the difficult catches and dropping the easy ones. And the reason that they are easy is because he's running great patterns and achieving separation. Maybe he has some sort of mental block that he may never overcome. I'd hate to be proven wrong as he becomes an All Pro with someone else. This franchise has the advantage of not needing their young players to be great immediately; a great luxury to have. If Limas can overcome this issue, a receiving corps that includes Holmes, Miller, Sweed, Wallace and 'Ward could prove to be undefensible. McDonald is solid, but the long term upside for Sweed is undeniable.
What to look for in the second quarter. If things go well the Steelers will be off the radar for the next couple of weeks. The most likely way we would make headlines is if we struggle or (God forbid!) lose to either the Lions or Browns, or (gulp) both. Don't see that happening quite frankly. October will be spent separating the players from the pretenders. Are the undefeated teams that good? Are the winless teams that bad? Pittsburgh simply won't be that interesting until we hit the Vikings. I felt we'd struggle the first month. My intuition says we beat the Vikings solidly as we contain AP and put tremendous pressure on Farve. That would put us at 5-2 going into the Bye. And then all Hell breaks loose in November.