During the Steelers-Patriots game last week, I found myself driving a truck-full of baby shower gifts from Erie back home to Harrisburg. Along I-80, shortly after the first snowfall of the year, I fiddled endlessly with the radio dial, looking for the best broadcast of the Pittsburgh Steeler Radio Network.
A few things I noticed:
1. Goddamn, the radio commentary is better than the television commentary. They actually call the plays!
2. Apparently I need to be driving more often during Steelers games.
3. I don't have specific insight on the Steelers-Pats game this week, hence the delay in writing my weekly article.
4. The Steelers are playing exciting football right now, and that comes out, even through the radio.
For this week's trends, then, I want to focus on one idea that has shaped the first two months of the season. This concept holds true for several players on several positions, and it'll be the basis of a bold prediction for this Sunday. The idea is this: the play of our rookies and young'uns improves dramatically after a veteran in their unit has a big game. The veterans set the standard.
During the 2010 season, when the secondary was the whipping boy of the Steelers, William Gay was the lightning rod for almost every fan's frustration. It was bad enough that this criticism persisted into the 2011 season, even though the secondary has been stifling opposing teams consistently in the first seven weeks. Many hesitated to say too much about this -- some said that the secondary just wasn't being tested as much, and others noted that the secondary hadn't faced a quality quarterback -- but after crushing the Patriot's passing game, this secondary deserves their due. Ike Taylor, who was already one of the best corners in the league, responded to his new paycheck this season by being even more clutch for the Steelers.
One man, however, can't stop an entire offense. Ike's shutdown performances throughout the season, but especially in the early parts of the season, have set the standard for a young man whose place on the Steelers was once in question: Keenan Lewis. Lewis' play has been good enough to bench Bryant McFadden, a former starter on the team -- and that isn't an easy accomplishment on a team that values its veterans. The development of Keenan Lewis is one of the most important storylines of this year's Steelers.
Every team always has to worry about the effects of injuries. You always want to have a raw talent waiting in the wings, ready to step up and take advantage of an opportunity to play. At certain positions, the Steelers also have to worry about finding a long-term replacement for when the stalwarts of our team hang up their cleats. Nose tackle is one of these positions for the Steelers: our starter and our primary backup don't have that many years left in their tanks.
When Casey Hampton went down with a shoulder injury, Chris Hoke stepped up and showed the world that he ain't old yet. Hoke had a monster of a game against the Titans. Don't let the stat line deceive you; in LeBeau's system, the nose tackle doesn't get a lot of numbers on the stat chart.
Then Hoke went down, and Steve McLendon, a guy who's bounced around on the Steelers practice squad for a while, had to step up and make his first start. He wasn't perfect, but because Hampton and Hoke had set the standard so clearly for him, he followed suit.
This argument holds true, I think, for all of the Young Money Crew, not just Antonio Brown, but Brown's play this season demonstrates the trend most clearly. But speaking of the Tennessee game. Mike Wallace, as usual, lead the receiving corps with 82 yards. Wallace is in the middle of a fantastic season. The thing that limits Wallace's production more than anything is this: if he's the only receiver making plays for the Steelers, then other teams can stack coverage up on him and limit his plays and yards. Without solid play from the #2 and #3 receivers, Wallace won't get near his goal of 2000 yards this season.
Against the Titans, Hines Ward showed Brown and Sanders how it's done. He racked up 54 yards on seven receptions, but most importantly got open for two touchdowns. His performance that day was part of the Steeler's bounceback from an agonizing week one. How have Sanders and Brown responded since then? They've stepped up their production, and were a crucial part of the Steelers' win over the Patriots, a game that Ward couldn't participate in. Antonio Brown, in particular, put together a winning performance, chalking up his first touchdown of the regular season while amassing 67 yards on nine receptions. Ward set the standard, and the young'uns followed his lead.
Not very many rookies see extensive playing time with the Steelers. It's just not part of the team's philosophy. However, injuries sometimes force the coaches' hands. This year, the Steelers looked for Aaron Smith to make his long-awaited comeback, but this was not to be. His absence left open two very large roles: one, the Steelers needed another starting DE, and two, they needed a starting veteran to lead the group by example. That veteran was and is Brett Keisel.
His beard might be the second coming of Chuck Norris, but his play this season has been an homage to the work of Aaron Smith. In a system where the linebackers are supposed to make the splash plays, Keisel has been making his mark. He's been batting down balls, getting QB pressures, and stuffing runs at the line of scrimmage. His forced fumble on Tom Brady was the perfect way to end the game. Keisel's dominance this season is setting the standard for the young players. The unit hasn't dropped off in production this year; it's improved.
Conclusion and a Prediction
There are other examples I could discuss. Marcus Gilbert's success this season, I think, largely comes from the encouragement and leadership from his college buddy Maurkice Pouncey. Mike Wallace has certainly had a large role in the development of Sanders and Brown. Ryan Mundy is showing some of the killer instinct that Polamalu exudes in every play. The four examples earlier, however, show the trend the most clearly. After a monster performance from one of the team's veterans, the younger players have stepped up their game.
There's one unit that I haven't discussed: the linebackers. Based on the trend I'm seeing in the rest of the team, I feel confident in saying that one of the Steelers' young linebackers is going to have a big day this Sunday against Baltimore.
Lamarr Woodley has not only set the standard these last few weeks, he's been setting records. He's been a ferocious opponent, finding ways to disrupt the run and shake up the passer even when he's double-teamed.
This week, the Steelers face the prospect of playing without Farrior, Harrison, and Woodley. One or two might be back, but nothing is certain except that Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester, or both are going to see significant playing time. Last week against the Patriots, neither showed a whole lot. This week, that's going to change. One of the two is going to have a coming-out party -- my bet's on Chris Carter -- and Joe Flacco ain't gonna like it.