Justin K. Aller
“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” ― Dr. Seuss
Q 1: Quick, what description comes to mind when you think of the Steelers Dynasty of the ‘70’s?
Q 2: Ok, now what description comes to mind when you think of the Steelers under Bill Cowher in the ‘90’s?
A 1: Dominating, intimidating defense. A bruising ground game.
A 2: Blitzburgh; relentless blitzes, aggressive, hard hitting defenses.
A 3: The aggressive offensive attack the Steelers unleashed in contrast to how they played in the regular season. Barely making the playoffs as the sixth seed (in essence getting into the playoffs ugly), the Steelers changed their style to such a degree they took their opponents by surprise and ultimately won the Super Bowl.
For each question, the answer is a description of how the Steelers played; what they were known for, what their "style" was that gave them their notoriety, and was the source of their success.
Style is more than superficial. Teams that win games with style execute each play, every game, so well that by doing so they easily overcome lesser talented teams, and beat those comparably talented or better.
They win by execution. They make winning look clean, proficient, and elegant. Peyton Manning is a stylish QB; so is Tom Brady. The Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49’ers are elegant teams, especially on defense; they are so good at what they do it is a pleasure to watch them in action.
So this week, while the lamentations of Steeler Nation over Ben Rothlisberger’s injury make sweet music to the Baltimore Ravens, another civil war will rage within the Nation pitting two factions against each other.
The battle will be between the Dr. Seuss "A win is a win no matter how ugly" camp and the Chicken Little "The Sky is falling" camp.
As it was last year’s game against the Chiefs, the two sides of the argument will be: "What are you complaining about, we won" versus "If the Steelers can’t do better than that against the Chiefs, all hope for the season is lost".
Both sides are right, and both sides are very, very wrong.
The Dr. Seuss camp is missing the point the Chicken Little camp fails to recognize.
The Steelers needed this win; both the Bengals and the Ravens won. More importantly, this was a conference opponent. Had the Steelers lost their fourth AFC game, the chances of a Wild Card position would have been dealt a serious blow.
So the Dr. Seuss camp is right; we’ll take this ugly win.
A win is ugly for three possible reasons: (1) poor weather (or poor refereeing) making execution of plays difficult, or(2) both teams being so defensively brutal that the offense is incapable of sustaining drives (the corollary being equally valid: the defenses can’t stop the offenses), or (3) the winning team does so despite its own ugly performance.
The weather wasn’t terribly bad last night (and don’t the Steelers "style" themselves as a bad weather team?); neither team overtly physically dominated the other, so that leaves no. 3 as the only logical reason for the Steelers’ win.
And how was this game won ugly? After three games with a 100 yard rusher, four Steelers combined fail to break a hundred, and two of them fumbled.
The failure to execute with style by the offensive line both in terms of establishing a running game (they didn’t) and protecting the QB (they didn’t) could end up costing the Steelers their franchise quarterback, who up until the third quarter was having arguably one of his best years.
Yes injuries can occur at any time, but the more an offense allows a defense to control the play, more opportunities for injury or turnovers are created.
Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin is right to say you don’t win points for style. But you score points with style by executing at a level above your competition. When you don’t play with style, seasons can be lost, and players can be hurt.
Against a team that is dead last by a wide margin in the turnover department, the Steelers fumbled three times, losing possession once which lead to the Chiefs field goal extending their lead to 10 points.
So the Chicken Little camp is right: the Steelers offense played without style again against an inferior team; that doesn't bode well for the rest of their schedule, when they face vastly superior teams.
The Steelers defense failed to smother the Chiefs’ offense in the first half; they were more like a colander than a curtain. The leading tacklers for the Steelers in that half were FS Ryan Clark and CB Keenan Lewis with six and four tackles respectively. Two players from the secondary had 56% of the tackles in the first half. Larry Foote and Brett Keisel accounted for four apiece. That’s it. What happened to Hood, Hampton, Woodley, Timmons, Harrison? If you don’t think that isn’t a description of a defense playing without style, you might want to stick with reading "One Fish, Two Fish…".
When a team as talented as the Steelers allows a team who had failed for 32 quarters to ever hold a lead, to drive at will and gain a lead in the first 6 minutes of the game, it means the Steelers were failing to execute. In four games out of the nine they’ve played, the Steelers failed to establish a style, and maintain it.
Fortunately for the Steelers’ playoff hopes, the defense showed up in style in the second half of the game; too bad the offense never did.
Aha! says the Chicken Little camp; see, how can we make a playoff run if we play this bad against the Chiefs?
Well, the Chicken Littles have their heads up….in the clouds. They fail to take into account that the Chiefs’ defense fielded three first round picks, the lowest one being rookie Dontari Poe, selected at number 11. Unlike the Cleveland Browns who don’t appear to know how to take advantage of years of high draft picks, the Chiefs draft well. They have talent. Their losses stem more from poor coaching and management, than in lack of talent.
So now the Dr. Seuss camp shouts Aha! See, an ugly win against a team like the Chiefs is a good thing.
Well, no its not. For the Steelers to win ugly against the 1-7 Chiefs means either (A) the Steelers aren’t nearly as good as we like to believe, or (B) the Steelers incessant "playing down" to the competition means they aren’t capable of sustaining 60 minutes of quality football comprised of good execution on a consistent basis. If A = 1 and B = 1, doesn’t A = B?
Either way you look at it, neither one bodes well for the upcoming game against the Ravens, or a run to the playoffs.
Once upon a time fear and doubt was the hallmark of the Steelers style of play; to introduce a fear of losing and self doubt into the minds of their opponents. Teams knew they had to be at their very best because the Steelers executed their game plan with style.
Remember the Steelers/Ravens rivalry through 2010? Remember how Steeler Nation was always confident that at some point in a game, Ravens QB Joe Flacco would choke, or Polamalu, Harrison, Woodley or Clark would make a splash play; remember the swagger with which the Steelers came into each game against the Ravens confident that there was always that element of their game, an element of style that would be the difference between these two comparably talented teams?
That is all well and gone now, having been lost in 2011’s Week 1 beat down, and the Raven’s doing to the Steelers what the Steelers used to do time after time to the Ravens, in the second meeting that year.
Until the Steelers re-define their "element of style", every game will continue to be a trap-game, the opponent not withstanding.
And Steeler Nation will be once again be embroiled in another senseless civil war, with both sides fighting for all the wrong reasons.