Happy October. The Bye week, regular season baseball and the replacement officials are gone. In a lot of ways it feels more like a fresh start rather than a continuation of the season. Pittsburgh will, for example, go into Sunday's game against Philadelphia as close to fully loaded in terms of personnel for the first time this season. While there may still be additional growing pains moving forward this will probably provide the best look at who and what this team is in 2012.
Although it is already October this will be only the second home game and the first 1pm start. In spite of that there is just the slightest whiff of desperation in the air. 1-3 wouldn't be the end of the world but you could get a pretty good view of it from there. On the other hand, Philadelphia is one of the shakiest 3-1 teams imaginable with their combined margin of victory being just 4 points. Add to the formula that element of intrastate rivalry and you have the components for a compelling afternoon of football. Most of the predictors and pundits are forecasting a Steelers victory based not so much on what Pittsburgh has accomplished but on what the Eagles have not. As a practical matter I'm not absolutely sure what we'll see.
It's hard to remember a time when injuries were not central to the conversation related to Steelers football. The team is not perfectly healthy, but it is in far better shape than in recent memory. James Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall and Troy Polamalu are all listed as probable for Sunday. And there has been so much excitement over the return of these three that virtually lost in the shuffle is the fact that Stevenson Sylvester is also coming back as well. Only Troy has played a down this season. How effective they will be remains to be seen, but I think all would agree that having them at something less than 100 percent is a huge improvement on having them stalking the sidelines. It has been so long since we have been able to put a team on the field without key people missing that it seems strange. Just to give you an idea; Sunday will mark only the seventh time since the 2010 season that LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison will share the field at the same time. Sunday will also be the first time in five games that Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark will be on the field at the same time. When was the last time all the defensive linemen on the roster were available for play?
The only outstanding exception to this avalanche of good news is rookie offensive lineman David DeCastro. But the news concerning him is upbeat and promising. There have been DeCastro sightings this week, with him moving about without either a brace or a limp. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley reports that he has been a consistent presence and in addition to the physical aspect is also mentally on top of things to the point of being described as no longer being a rookie. DeCastro is slated to return from IR status at the eight week mark of the season.
Another missing body, though not from injury has been tight end Weslye Saunders who has been serving a four game suspension. There had been some confusion over the exact length of the punishment. The Steelers believed that Saunders was serving a four week suspension which would have meant he was eligible to return to play against the Eagles. As it turned out the league had ruled it a four game suspension meaning that he will return for the Thursday night game against the Titans. The secondary story here is who will be cut from the roster to accommodate Saunders' return.
The former offensive coordinator found himself thrust in a prominent role due to a tragedy. As a consequence of Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano being diagnosed with lukemia Arians has been named interim Head Coach. While I agreed with the general consensus and team decision to part ways with BA, I, nonetheless, have considered much of the criticisms of him to be over the top. So, in spite of the tragic circumstances, I have found some humor and perhaps even a bit of cosmic justice in the fact that in spite of the venom that has been directed at him he has landed a low expectation, low pressure head coaching gig. A reminder that hating rarely rewards the hater.
This was a topic of discussion during the off season. How would the team weather the loss of strong leaders like Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke. Would replacing their leadership be a greater problem than replacing their talent. Players such as Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Antonio Brown promised to step up and we began to believe that all would be fine. However, the question has been raised again, this time within the context of trying to determine an explanation for the team defensive woes in the first quarter of the season. Are the new leaders up to the task? Will all be fine with some time? It is an issue we'll be watching over the next few weeks and beyond.
Keeping an eye on and keeping up with the neighbors is the main issue driving our concerns about returning to the win column this weekend. The Ravens have managed a 3-1 record feasting on Ohio and the shaky Patriots. The Bengals have also been bottom feeding. But the Steelers don't get to pick on Cleveland until later in the year. And the Browns could be a lot better by then. They are losing, but are doing so playing young guys who will benefit from the hard knocks they're experiencing now as they become more seasoned. They may well be a much tougher out in the winter and certainly next year when they are completely under the sway on new ownership than they are now. BTSC's Rebecca Rollett has been keeping an eye on the AFC North this season and has been producing her typically high level of analysis.
NFL position needs
Bill Barnwell put together an interesting piece at grantland.com concerning chronic position needs for a number of different NFL teams. For the Steelers he identifies the position of left offensive tackle. See what he has to say about the Pats, Eagles, Giants, Rams, Browns, Cowboys and others.
He put together a couple of interesting pieces this week. In an area of interest to me he speaks to troubling trend that in spite of ever higher salaries professional athletes are ending up broke. Earlier in the week he addressed a number of issues and came to conclusions that I am sure some of you will find emotionally satisfying if nothing else. He labels both New York coaches, Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan as overrated. And I think you'll be very happy with who he picks to appear in this year's Super Bowl.
From time to time I take the liberty to address some non football issues in this space. This week marked the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit. It may not be impossible but it is likely to be very difficult for anyone of a certain age and with Pittsburgh roots to be a sports fan and not be a great admirer of Clemente. It defines a generation of Pittsburghers and has engendered an almost cultlike following. Two of us at BTSC, Neal Coolong and Homer J have been lucky to have had contact with the Great One or with others who were close to him. Both wrote movingly of those relationships this past week. They get the last word.