Maybe the best indication of the state of the Steelers is that going into this week's game with the Ravens the folks in Baltimore may actually be feeling sorry for Pittsburgh. Part of the reason is understandable. Pittsburgh on their own cannot overtake Baltimore in the AFC North divisional race, so in that respect, no worries. In addition, it seems unlikely that the Ravens will have to contend with Ben Roethlisberger this time around, and if so he will not be anywhere near 100 percent. This game is still going to attract national attention given the unusual (to me) fact that observers outside of Pittsburgh are more bullish about the Steelers' prospects at this point than the Pittsburgh media and Steeler Nation. The uncertainty engendered by both the avalanche of injuries as well as the amazing number of close games (It really isn't inconceivable that the Steelers could be either 10-1 or 3-8 based upon a handful of plays that could have gone one way or another) seems to have unnerved the Steeler community. Pittsburgh hasn't been really thumped by any opponent, but it doesn't feel that way does it? More to the point the Cleveland game demonstrated this team's ability to beat the hell out of themselves.
No one should be surprised given how and to whom the Steelers lost this past week that there was plenty of criticism and bad feelings coming from both the media and the fan base. The head coach, as should be the case, was at the center of a lot of this. He was also not so pleased about what transpired himself. Tomlin took full responsibility for the team's dismal showing in Cleveland. But he didn't stop there. There were consequences, particularly at running back, as players were demoted. Rashard Mendenhall who contributed two fumbles in the great Steeler giveaway in Cleveland was banished to third string, with Jonathan Dwyer being declared the starter heading into Sunday's game. Receiver Mike Wallace also received a reprimand of sorts, being designated a 'co-starter' with Emmanuel Sanders opposite of Antonio Brown.
While we can agree that a harsh assessment is well deserved given the circumstances, it should also come as no surprise that some will go too far. Some welcome push back came in the form of a much needed column by Ron Cook who wrote in defense of Tomlin. One of the weird notions that has been circulating about Tomlin and has gained traction in some quarters for years is that he has merely been the fortunate beneficiary of inheriting Bill Cowher's team. I've always found this to be a peculiar idea. I mean, how does that work? What are the measurable points when a team no longer belongs to the previous coach and becomes the product and responsibility of the current coach? Following this logic was Cowher's early successes in the the '90s, including Super Bowl 30 the consequence of the fact that he was custodian of Chuck Noll's team? Probably the best example in this regard would be Jon Gruden. In 2002 he took Tampa Bay (Tony Dungy's team?) to the Super Bowl where he defeated the Oakland Raiders (his team, whom he failed to move to the Super Bowl when he was at the helm a year earlier, due in part to the hated Tuck Rule). So does he get credit for winning or losing or both? Following the logic further, Tomlin took Cowher's team and managed to match The Chin's number of Super Bowl appearances in a third of the time. Who does that reflect more favorably upon? And if credit for success accrue to Cowher or his team, how about the failures? Let's not forget how important the '05 championship was in redeeming Cowher's legacy. To that point he had attracted a lot of criticism as being an underachieving coach who couldn't push some immensely talent teams over the hump.
Another myth addressed in the Cook article is that Tomlin coddles his players while Cowher was the disciplinarian. Cook quotes Jerome Bettis who refutes that notion claiming that Cowher allowed the players to "get away with murder". On the other hand those with a nodding acquaintance of Tomlin's operations know that in spite of his reputation as a player's coach, he has a large and active doghouse. In fact, some of the current criticism, including that from Hall of Famer Franco Harris, argue that maybe he might be too rigid in his standards.
Is Tomlin a great coach in the mold of a Lombardi or even an Belichick? absolutely not at this point. But when they were Tomlin's age, it would be several years before Lombardi was hired for his first head coaching job, and a decade before Belichick would lead his team to a Super Bowl.
They just don't go away. Tackle Mike Adams and Guard Willie Colon joined the ranks of the wounded, while LaMarr Woodley returned after an all too brief absence from the injured list. As I write this Neal Coolong reports that Ben Roethlisberger is definitely out for Sunday. Tackle Marcus Gilbert is headed for Injured Reserve and lost for the rest of the season. Adams is definitely out this week. It is unclear how much the team will be able to get from Colon. Consequently, Maurkice Pouncey has been spending some time in practice playing at guard predicated on a scenario where Legursky would start at center in the absence of Colon. Ramon Foster has also been taking reps at right tackle in anticipation of the possibility that David DeCastro might return to the lineup. Otherwise the right tackle position will be manned by Kelvin Beachum.
DeCastro is part of the cautious optimism and good news that is coming from this front. Antonio Brown is expected to return from a high ankle sprain this week. Besides having severe difficulties with their hands the running backs are completely healthy for two weeks running for the first time this year. Some won't see that as good news given current events. On the defensive side of the ball Woodley is out, but Troy Polamalu will be back at least on a limited basis. But don't expect to see him at 100 percent (more on that below).
Rounding into shape
The bad news/good news is that just because players are returning to the lineup does not mean that they are anywhere near to being 100 percent. There is a ton of pressure on players to get back into action as soon as they can, but there is often a considerable gap between being healthy enough to take the field and being able to perform at the levels approaching the peak of their abilities. Part of the downside of this is that there is a risk that injuries will be re-aggravated or new ones incurred. There is also the likelihood that performance may be below the line. This is why I don't believe anyone is going to get bent out of shape by the fact that Ben isn't playing this week. To the contrary, I for one am relieved. The bad possibilities far outnumbered the good in that scenario. And as I mentioned above, it'll be nice to see Troy back out there, but don't expect much.
The upside is that those whom many have been disappointed with over the past few months are really starting to perk up performance wise as they become truly healthy and round into shape. This group includes Casey Hampton, Jason Worilds and James Harrison. Reports of the demise of these players have, thankfully, been premature. Is it unreasonable to think that we may see more from the running backs as they grow stronger and, hopefully, don't suffer additional setbacks. Keep this in mind as you watch Ben, Troy, DeCastro and others attempt to work their way back into action. The key to how far this team may go this year will probably be determined by whether the rate of injuries can be alleviated and the timing of the full recovery of those currently part of the MASH unit.
LeBeau and Haley
The two coordinators had their regularly scheduled sessions with media. Almost lost in the chaos of recent performances is how well the defense has been playing. With due respect to those who suggest that the defense should be doing more, the fact that they have climbed to the top ranking in the league despite the absence and/or degradation of three Pro Bowlers (Harrison, Polamalu and Woodley) is a quality achievement. You may recall that LeBeau was under quite a bit of fire earlier in the year as the defense faltered and was judged to be at fault for early losses. The focus this week was on the return of Polamalu who, even on a limited basis, will constitute an upgrade. Other signs of good news is the quality performance of Worilds in place of the injured Woodley, and the signs of Harrison coming to full strength and a return to dominance. Its clear that if this unit can maintain or even improve on the current level of performance that Pittsburgh has the opportunity to prevail in any contest they would be a part of, even with a somewhat dysfunctional offense and special teams. One of the things lost in the evaluation of Browns game is that in spite of eight turnovers it was only a one score game. More sober and detached observers have noticed that which is why a lot of folks outside of Steeler Nation aren't ready to write off the Steelers just yet. Especially if Ben can make it back soon.
The vitriol that was directed at LeBeau earlier in the year has migrated to Haley. I must assume that being head coach at Kansas City was a benefit because he has handled things well so far. While he did not deflect the harsh critiques of the running backs or Charlie Batch he did not buy into the ideas of incompetence that have been associated with these players. In the case of Batch, for example, he mentioned that to compensate for his reduced arm strength he had to release the ball faster (earlier in the route) in order to make the connections. He pointed out that Batch's range was similar to that of Kurt Warner when he worked with him in Arizona. The obvious priority is to reduce if not eliminate mistakes. Cutting their mistakes in half might have resulted in an 8-3 record at this point.
No one would dispute that Batch played poorly in Cleveland. The critical question at this juncture is whether that performance is who he is at this stage of his career or just a particularly bad day at the office. The same question can be applied to Byron Leftwich. The easy conclusion is to that neither quarterback is capable of an above the line performance any longer. But the results of the past two games could be reversed by one play a piece; either a positive created by the Steelers or just a negative prevented. If so, and if there were two victories would anyone be drawing the same conclusions? However, regardless of the outcome this is likely to be Batch's last start. He wants to go out a winner.
Jonathan Dwyer and the committee
Tomlin has named Dwyer to be the featured back going into this week's game. It should be noted that much of this committee stuff was driven by necessity as much as anything. What is pleasantly unusual about the current situation is that the running backs as a group are actually healthy. Let's not forget that the starters for some weeks were the only one who were.
Art Rooney Sr.'s take on the Steelers
Here is a speculative piece on how the Steelers founder might look at the 2012 version of the team. The assumption is that there are parallels of circumstance between this year's team and the 1976 squad in relation to injuries and the potential response. Some will claim that it constitutes blasphemy to compare any Steeler team of this era with that group, the comparison as it relates to injuries, the team response and luck could be viewed as being apt.
The Steeler safety is not bashful about letting his feelings be known. He turned the mirror on the team and Steeler Nation in the wake of the team's disappointing loss to the Browns
Over the summer we noted that the Steeler linebacker was the intended victim of a scam in his native Detroit. The verdict is now in and Foote has come out on top.
The rich get richer
A group of Steelers players were part of the payout of the big Powerball drawing this past Wednesday as they match 4 numbers on a ticket.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
In the midst of the funk associated with the two game losing streak some have gone in for some historical revisionism. An example would be the big win over the Eagles that doesn't seem so big today as Philadelphia's season has crashed and burned. But one accomplishment that is standing the test of time, indeed looks better day by day is the win over the Washington Redskins and their Offensive Rookie of the Year and MVP candidate Robert Griffin III. With an impressive performance on a national stage against the Cowboys and one coming up on Monday against the Giants the easy handling of RG3 by the Steeler defense stands out.
Feet of clay?
Finally, you might be tempted to think that why is it that other organizations seem to have their stuff together, while the Steelers seem to be struggling a bit now. So you might find some comfort in this report about the track record of New England Patriot employees and how they've done when moving on to other places.