At The Half: The Steelers On The Back Stretch

Observations at the halfway mark of the season.  RickVa  

Okay. Things are about to get serious now. League-wide not much is likely to be settled by month's end. However it will be an absolutely critical period for the AFC North, particularly the Bengals and Ravens. After a perfect 4-0 record for October our guys are well positioned to be in very good shape going into December if they can take full or partial advantage of the opportunities presented to them this month. On the other hand, this is not the time for much in the way of stumbling or hiccups. While a mistake or two may not be fatal, it could lead to hard times, finger pointing and ulcers later on.

So, a quick look at the big picture in order to get our bearings and a sense of perspective, and then a look at where we appear to stand as an organization going into the second half of the season.

The League.

"Yes, teams like the Ravens, Colts, Giants, Broncos and Saints look terrific now; and teams like the SteelersPatriots and Eagles appear to be stumbling. Let's see where things stand at Thanksgiving."

Said that last month.

We don't have to wait until Thanksgiving. How about Halloween? It appeared that the big loser this year would be parity. Of course things are rarely as simple as they seem. Most of the undefeateds have been brought back to earth. Nobody is without at least one win. The Ravens were undefeated at the beginning of last month and were considered by some to be the best team in the league. Sunday's win against the Broncos prevented them from falling below .500 for the season. You would be tempted to think that the Redskins were the absolutely worst team in professional football. In fact, a quarter of the NFL have records equal to or worse than Washington. The Skins are only two games behind the Giants, another 'best in the League' candidate three weeks ago.

NFC. Right now the Saints are the king of this jungle. Is it just me or was the skill and athleticism on display this past Monday night by the Saints and the Falcons off the charts? It seems to me that we are experiencing a split between those teams that are going to the wall as far as talent, coaching, team culture contribute to the success of their organizations, while there is another group that is cutting corners in terms personnel on the field and the front office. This latter group seems to be increasingly exposed. And while New Orleans is very good, we are also seeing what Donovan McNabb can do when he has high quality tools surrounding him. If he and they can stay healthy. The Falcons have the potential to be very good and showed the other night that they are capable of shooting it out with their divisional rivals. The Cardinals seem to be more like Pittsburgh West in more ways than one. In particular, inconsistant play. And then there is AD, Farve and the Vikings. The Giants aren't done, neither are the Packers, and until they convince me otherwise the Cowboys are a fraud, but viewed as indispensible in some corners in terms of promoting the league. If the NFC is a jungle then the AFC must be Jurassic Park. Yes, there is the Wildcat, the Bengals have been surging a bit, you have the Ryan and Sanchez show in New York, the Broncos may very well be paper horsies and experience tells us to not count the Chargers out yet regardless of appearances. But...there are four carnivores stomping around these parts who collectively are responsible for seven of the last nine NFL Championships. The Dungy-less, Harrison-less Colts are struggling along undefeated, the rebuilding Patriots lead their division, the Ravens are revealing a level of balance that might be enough to get them over the hump come playoff time. The Steelers are defending Champs and clearly improved from last year's model.

Where we stand. We are at a comparable moment to Tomlin's first season with the Steelers. After a satisfying opening they came off the Bye playing a Monday Night game at Denver. The Steelers lost the game,as well as Aaron Smith and Ryan Clark for the year. They struggled for the rest of the season, though they managed to win the division. And then an early exit from the playoffs. Here's what's at stake in November: Cincy completes their division schedule by the end of the month. The Ravens have arguably the toughest stretch of their schedule in November. They already have gotten past the Broncos, ahead are the Bengals, Browns, Colts and Steelers. Here's the thing: if one of these teams gets hot and sweeps the month, then the divisional title hopes of at least one or both of its rivals probably will be shattered by month's end. The alternative scenario is that all three teams bumble along, alternating brilliant play with Keystone Kops type highlights. One step forward, one (or two) steps back.

Ground Hog Day. To say 'Advantage Steelers' would be an easy argument to make. Pittsburgh is clearly the hot team at the moment; in the midst of a four game winning streak, well rested, in a managable injury situation and with one exception the quality of play is high and trending in the right direction. As Blitz points out in a current thread the Broncos look very much like paper ponies. Nor am I overly enamored with the Ravens or the Bengals who are not the juggernauts that were advertised to be a month ago. And while the Steelers have been maddeningly charitable and inconsistent there have been no games this year where they appeared to be outclassed by an opponent. Some would argue the Vikings, but I don't buy into that. That's another fight for another time.

However. In some of the best of years the Steelers struggle at Denver. It may disappoint but not shock long time fans if the team were to find some way to lose at Invesco Field. Thus the Ground Hog Day scenario: In the first version the Steelers go out after the Bye and do not see their shadows meaning a playoff spot will be coming soon. They promptly scorch the Broncos bringing them down to earth with a thud. That will also bring hope to the Chargers who were last seen lying face down in the Pacific Ocean. The Steelers then would return home to blugeon a Bengals team that has been staggered, shattered or both after its death struggle with the Ravens the previous week. A small speed bump with the Chiefs (rule #1 for aspiring champions; beat the teams you're supposed to beat. KC qualifies) and then Blood Bath Part One featuring the Ravens after they have gone to war with the Colts. December would be for building momentum to the playoffs and positioning for seeding. In the second scenario the Steelers do see their shadow and figuratively speaking stick their heads underground. Securing a playoff position will take at least another six weeks if at all. Heartburn will be the order of the day as the three AFC North contenders take turns finding creative ways of disemboweling themselves and each other pushing back a decision into late December.

Other Observations.

Tomlin and the Coaching Staff. This week may provide an opportunity to measure the progress of Tomlin and his staff from year one to now.The challenge is to use the Bye to rest and heal the team while maintaining, if not accelerating momentum. One of the subtlties of coaching team sports is calibrating the growth and development of the team. Some teams are pretty much who they are from Day One of the season until the end. It is very much like running a race. Start off too fast or slow at the beginning and you either lack the energy to finish (Tomlin Year One) or fall behind and lack the finishing kick to win at the end. Will the team be physically and mentally ready for the November (and then December) run. Hopefully we haven't seen the Steelers best football yet and that their play will rise to meet the challenges ahead. Patience. A word about a quality for which we as fans seem to have very little tolerance. Look at what has happened with the offensive line without the benefit of wholesale personnel moves or coaching changes. Max Starks, Trai Essex, Willie Colon would be long gone if it were up to many of us. Perhaps that should be kept in mind as we move forward with our discussions about players such as Limas Sweed, Jeff Reed and Stefan Logan. Sometimes, as in the case of a Nick Eason that issues and information that we are not privy to, and often is frankly, none of our damn business (in Eason's case his mother's breast cancer) will impact how a player is handled by management. In the case of Sweed, what's rush? If his play were to become perfect today where would you play the guy? Who would you sit? Wallace? (Hell no!) We have a player who apparently runs great routes and gets good separation (otherwise how would he manage to get so wide open to drop those easy passes?). Is willing to make the difficult catches in traffic, is a devestating blocker, but has issues with the easy catches. Correctible? Who knows? We do know that Hines Ward given his age and his style is one play from IR. We know that Santonio's contract will eventually come up and its always a possibility that he might not sign here. And anyone can pull a hamstring. Assistants. Conversation doesn't travel too deep in reference to our coaching staff. Most talk revolves around three guys Tomlin and LeBeau, who we mostly like and Arians, who we mostly don't. I think its time that Offensive Line Coach Larry Zierein and Asst Head Coach/Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell earn some props.

The Champs. There has been much talk about the challenges and pitfalls involved with being defending champs. There are benefits as well. We have pretty much passed the point where we have to concern ourselves with 'hangovers' or big headedness. The self confidence and the swagger are clear advantages at this time of the year. Generally, I really like the hand that we have been dealt. Their talking Pro Bowl for Ben. Hines and Heath are having career years. Rashard is doing well and Willie is getting healthier. There aren't a lot of fronts better than the Vikings. The O-line was not overwhelmed. Harrison was named defensive player of the month, Troy will probably be named All Pro. Ziggy will get the quantity of work that should accelerate his development. I really like our chances. It'll be interesting to see what team shows up after the Bye.

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