So close. It has taken a few days for the sting to wear off but most of the Steelers fans I encounter are basically on the same page; to be 3-1 at this stage of the season is pretty sweet. Yeah, 4-0 would have been much better and we came about as close you can to getting there without actually getting there. But a month ago who wouldn't have taken 3-1 with a big grin on his or her face?
The quarter pole and the Bye week is a logical time to take a breath and take stock of where we stand in the grand scheme of the season. But as we all know this year we have something extra to contemplate. In a very real sense we will be starting over next week. Think of September 12th as Opening Day for Steelers Lite (without Ben), and October 17th as Opening Day for the Steelers (with Ben). At this stage of the season certain questions have been answered to a certain extent, others are still outstanding. But this time we have a few more that refer to the return of Ben and the effect on the team's performance that will only begin to be answered when we take the field against the Browns. What we know now is that this is a very good football team that can go deep into the playoffs if they maintain the current quality of play and avoid devastating personnel losses. Presumably in most, if not all scenarios having Ben rejoin the club improves the team significantly and greatly enhances its prospects going forward. Let me be more specific.
Mike Tomlin. The head coach comes away a big winner in his leadership and handling of a tricky and somewhat unique situation. How good Tomlin is as a head coach will not be more fully understood until he accumulates a greater body of work. But from where I stand the surprising (to most) success of this year's squad is directly related to his strategic approach to winning football, and his unyielding execution of that philosophy. The circumstances of this season have been such that no one would have blamed this team for a mediocre to poor early performance. That was, in fact, the expectation from virtually everyone, certainly everyone outside of Steeler Nation. But, almost in anticipation of the situation, this coach has been preaching from day one that the expectations of performance do not change regardless of who has to do the performing. I'm not sure that the team would have bought into the approach so completely if it had only been emphasized as a response to this particular situation. At no point did this team falter in confidence or give any indication that the situation was ‘unfair'. They adapted and did it so well that they and we were sincerely disappointed when they fell just short of perfection for the first four games. Incredible.It is in the areas of vision and setting the proper tone for peak performance that Tomlin is at his strongest. His weaknesses are usually at the tactical level where his relative lack of experience has betrayed him on occasion. But he rarely repeats mistakes. Control has also been an issue in the past. There has been precious little discussion of the degree of difficulty involved in coming into a situation that has been recently successful and experienced little turnover in players or staff and have to sell a new style of leadership. But it is clearly becoming his team now.
Sean Kugler and Al Everest: The new guys seem to doing fine so far. Perhaps the best indication of how things are going is that the usually unceasing negative critiques of the offensive line has slowed to a trickle here at BTSC. Trai Essex is the current favorite for a one way ticket to Anywhere-But -Here. Otherwise the first unit is playing well even though there has been a 60 percent turnover in personnel from last year. Coach K has also arranged for a rotation where the backups have been getting game reps with no apparent degradation of performance. The ensemble should certainly improve as Pouncey, Adams and Legursky become more familiar with the offense and each other. With the exception of the erratic kicking of Jeff Reed, special teams has improved across the board, even to the depth of Reed's kick offs. Generally speaking it has turned from definite liability to at least a sometime asset.
While on the subject of coaches; here is one person's tribute to Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell. For the first four games the second line of Eason, Hoke and Hood have performed with little drop off from starters Hampton, Keisel and Smith. Mitchell, as well as Linebacker Coach Keith Butler toll in the considerable shadow of Dick LeBeau. Every once and a while they deserve a little bit of light.
Quarterbacks. Interestingly enough we find the quarterback situation just as muddled today as it was last spring. Who, for example, do we jettison now? Let us be clear about one thing. If Ben isn't going anywhere then understand that this is a franchise quarterback, the professional football equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. None of the three backups can fully replace Ben. If they could they wouldn't be backups, at least not for long. What we need is the football equivalent of a short to medium reliever. Who would be best for that role? Not Dixon. He's young and has no reason to believe that he can't lead his own team. I'm sure Buffalo would love to have him. He also is developing a reputation concerning durability issues. He looks frail and will that knee ever be fully healthy? Byron would be a great choice but only if he has given up on the dream of leading his own team. Unless Ben suffers a catastrophic injury or stumbles again in his personal life, the starter position is his until the wheels come off the wagon. When will that be; 5, 7, 10 more years?
The backup would be a great job. Relative high prestige, great salary, little physical wear and tear, and probably great job opportunities when your career is done if you play your cards right. You just have to pack away that ego. Think Gary Kubiak or Charlie Batch. As we have discovered, Charlie is still pretty good at the job. Yeah, he's fragile, but not nearly as much as people claimed (nearly three games and still in one piece), with nine years as a backup common sense tells you that the physical toll on his body is less than what would be expected of a 35 year old NFLer. Nonetheless, its close to time for him. Winning this past Sunday would have been the perfect Swan Song for Charlie. But I would not blame him for wanting to be part of another run for a ring or two. Ultimately, the story would have its most satisfying ending with him being in a high level management position with the club; say, player development or evaluation. He would be strong at community relations as well. It will be interesting to see how all this works out.
Receivers. The big question here was how much would we feel the loss of Santonio. I would say that the answer looks like not much if at all. Mike Wallace is turning out to be what we hoped he would be, even with our anemic early season passing game. Hines is still Hines. The big secret about ARE is that the Skins tried to use him as a #1 or 2 receiver. He's never been that kind of guy. At #3 he's well placed. And as we have seen thus far is still a very capable receiver in the right placement. Brown and Sanders look to be capable of giving us what was lost with Holmes, but they are currently victims of the numbers game. Brown can't get into a game other than through special teams, Sanders can't get a hat. Frustrating, but this is a good thing.
Running backs. As the Pittsburgh dailies have been harping on over the past couple of days, the return of Ben should be a windfall for Mendenhall, given that defenses can't simply stack up to stop him. I would take it a step further. Now is the time to run that Pony offense and give them two backs to worry about at the same time. Regardless, this could be a Pro Bowl year for Rashard unless Ben and/or BA do some serious backsliding.
Players of note
Willie Gay. Were it not for the late touchdown for the Ravens, much more would be made of two great plays made by Gay on third and fourth down during the goal line stand. He has earned the right to be referred to as ‘Big Play Willie Gay' once again.
Brett Keisel. Lost in the disappointment of last year's team was the leap in play by Keisel who now is playing on the level of linemates Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton.
Antwaan Randle El. He's been making tough receptions since preseason. And while many would rather see Brown or Sanders in that position, El is demonstrating that he can be just as clutch as Hines Ward. He brings incredible leadership intangibles to the table as well. Finally, it remains to be seen if BA, now that Ben is back, might dust off some of the gadget plays that proved so effective when Wisenhunt was the OC. If so, watch out.
Ryan Clark. The next player after James Harrison that most deserves the title of Cold Blooded Assassin. Knocked McClain out of the game on Sunday and hit a receiver so hard that a certain reception fell incomplete. Receivers are getting in the habit of short arming passes that are thrown in the vicinity of Clark.
Maurkice Pouncey. The kid has gotten so good that I forget he's in the game now.
Lawrence Timmons. He's everywhere. And he's gonna get better and better.