Until Sunday night, the Steelers have played like Sheep. In Week 7 against Cincinnati, they were alpha wolves, stalking their prey.
Teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) or the Cleveland Browns (1-6) are Sheep. They have as their quarterbacks' young rams being led to slaughter. When two flocks of sheep confront each other, there ensues a battle of opposing rams that determines the victor; the losing ram losing its flock to the winner. There are sheep victors in such battles between rams; there are no sheep victors when sheep meet wolves.
Teams like the Titans(3-4) and Raiders (2-4) are Sheep. They can be dangerous if cornered, for their QBs are experienced rams; one look at the horns on a ram's head, or watching two rams butting heads as one challenges the other, and you'll understand. When confronted, or cornered and desperate, the horns of these rams can inflict damage to the unaware opponent, as the Steelers sadly have learned, losing to both teams in their respective home fields.
As herbivores, there is no teamwork necessary for sheep to find food upon which to survive; their food is right there at their feet. No effort is required to get it, except to walk onto the field; no coordination is necessary between sheep, individually they just bend their necks and eat. The Alpha ram leads the flock to various pastures then, between its own bites of grass, surveys its surroundings for danger. Occasionally a younger ram will challenge the Alpha ram for supremacy, much like Tim Tebow challenges Mark Sanchez for the QB position with the New York Jets (3-4). Failing to win the position outright, Tebow (the Sheep symbolism is ironic, isn't it?) will return to his "flock" and placidly go back to feeding on the sideline grass, and either wait for another opportunity to lead, or simply be a follower.
These Sheep can be seen playing every Sunday, but with rare exception without the intensity, ferocity, and the sheer will to win that Wolves exemplify.
No one is scared of a flock of sheep. Coming across a flock of sheep in a field causes no reason for concern, and does nothing more than possibly induce sleepiness.
Facing a pack of wolves on the other hand creates an immediate sense of fear, and only another wolf pack would ever consider risking a confrontation. Wolves hunt in a pack, each member with an assigned task and working in close coordination with each other. Working alone, a wolf is scary enough; working as a pack, wolves dominate their environment and are feared by all who cross their path.
Until Sunday the Steelers have played like Sheep. Players we thought would be dangerous wolves have played more like timid ewes, failing to show the fang and claw of a carnivore and instead playing passively. The defense, game after game, has been gored by the horns of the opposing rams in the fourth quarter when players like Lawrence Timmons or Ryan Mundy play passively.
When this happens, and when the Steelers' offensive line is too weak to open lanes to establish a running threat or when the offense fails repeatedly to convert possessions into points, then the Steelers play like Sheep.
While no one would suggest Ben Roethlisberger is anything but a wolf, when surrounded by sheep, he can only be a ram. Just as lambs in real life don't lie down with lions, a wolf cannot lead sheep.
Until Sunday, our defense rolled over and bared its collective necks to apparent alpha males Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck. Until Sunday, Isaac Redman, Baron Batch, Chris Rainey and the offensive line appeared toothless, unable to put together a running threat. As such, Ben Roethlisberger was the sole leader, the sole threat amidst a flock of sheep. The problem is Ben can't do it all. He's been unable to establish a running game, stymied by an offensive line that has been both patch-worked and passive in its approach; Willie Colon, Ramon Foster, Max Starks, veterans all, have seemed hesitant in their execution; a lack of familiarity with the player next to them and the new schemes from first year OC Todd Haley causing them to think the play through, instead of acting on instinct.
That is, until this past Sunday night; a night when the Steelers bared their fangs and made a statement.
The Steelers' defense made a statement:
The Steelers held the Bengals to a total of 185 net yards of offense; 80 yards rushing, 105 passing. This despite Bengals QB Andy Dalton being ranked sixth out of 32 QBs in total offense and passing yards; in both categories he is ranked ahead of Roethlisberger.
The Bengals' offensive standout A.J. Green, who is tied for second in the league for touchdowns, third in receiving yards, fifth in the league in Yards per Touch (14.4), and seventh in yards per game, was held by Ike Taylor to one reception for a total of eight yards. The defense even had an interception, by LaMarr Woodley.
The Steelers' offense made a statement:
It racked up 431 yards of total offense. Jonathan Dwyer ran for 122 yards on 17 carries; a 7.1 yard per carry average. Chris Rainey rushed for a touchdown, showing his lightning speed as the offensive line finally gave him an opening he could exploit without needing to butt heads against much larger linebackers. Ben passed for 264 yards and a touchdown to Heath Miller, but still had one interception. The Steelers put up 167 total yards rushing, to go along with 264 yards of passing offense. 431 yards of total offense, in spite of numerous catchable passes that were dropped, primarily by Mike Wallace and Baron Batch.
But most impressive, was the statement made by Offensive Guard Willie Colon:
On a night when Vontaze Burfict, who, despite being what many within Steeler Nation had envisioned as an exploitable weak spot in the Bengals' linebacking corp, had a highly successful night with 15 tackles against this player Willie Colon made a signature statement.
It was a statement exemplifying an attitude of primeval domination long thought lost from the Steelers offensive line. It was a statement of surliness last seen in training camp; it was a Wolf's Statement. Colon stood Burfict up on a play, then as the play was ending, slammed him to the ground. And like a true alpha wolf, Colon didn't let go, but instead dove on top of Burfict, his legs churning as he imposed his will over him, and continued to drive Burfict along the turf, establishing who indeed was the alpha male that night and reducing Burfict to the role of a subdued pup amongst grown wolves.
Whether or not this new found aggression and "wolf-like" unified play by the Steelers will continue remains to be seen. The Bengals, despite their offensive success up to this point, are not proven wolves. The Steelers' real test is yet to come as they face the New York Giants (5-2), and more importantly, the Baltimore Ravens (5-2).
Once the Beta male to the Steelers' Alpha, the past couple of years have seen the Ravens make moves toward sole dominance in the AFC North. A sweep of the Steelers last year included both a beat down, and the kind of last minute snatching-of-victory from the Steelers' grasp with which the Steelers used to perpetually break the Ravens' spirit. This year though, it's as if this self-ordained new Alpha has suddenly aged, and is showing signs of weakness. Sunday's showing of utter domination of the Ravens by the Texans (6-1), who lost to Baltimore in the playoffs last year, indicates an impending re-ordering of dominance in the AFC. It would be pleasurable to see the Ravens fall to Sheep-dom status, and despite the return of Terrell Suggs, the apparent season-ending injuries to Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb may give way to such a fall. But it's too early to count them out until the Steelers face them in weeks 11 and 13 of this season.
The Ravens have their bye week now, a long week with which to live with the ignominious defeat they just suffered. They then face sheep-like teams in the form of the Browns and the Raiders over the two weeks following. In particular, the Browns will be playing them at home, and will desperately want to exploit the weaknesses highlighted by the Texans. How the Ravens perform in these two games will give an indication of what animal the Steelers will face in Week 11.
Regardless of which animal form the Ravens end up resembling at that time, the Steelers must continue to show their wolf-like qualities in the games leading up to, and including that momentous confrontation. They're going to have to have their Linebackers shed their sheepskins and once again become hunters of quarterbacks and running backs. The secondary will have to continue tracking down receivers, denying them room to get open and escape. If the Steelers want to be the Alpha team in the AFC North this year, they're going to have to stop hiding in sheep's clothing, and instead bare their fangs and declare to the rest of the NFL that the Steelers' pack of wolves we saw Sunday night is here to stay.