(Part I of II)
I wrote an early case for the Steelers in June and had to avoid the temptation to just make some minor editorial changes and republish it. I also produced a similar piece a year ago speaking to the 2011 squad and could get away with reproducing that with minor changes as well. The reason this is so is because the basic foundation, character and direction of the Tomlin Steelers has been set. Over time this reveals itself through observation, the only thing in question are some of the details and the actual results from the application of the strategy. Consider the following from last September:
The Steelers may have found an antidote to parity. The problem that we see this season and may be a pattern is that there are more quality players that can play and want to play here than the team can retain. Thanks to Colbert and the scouts the cup runneth over with new, young talent. Thanks to Rooney and Tomlin current players want to stay and will do so, uncomplaining, often at a relative discount. Former players want to come back. And an expanded group of veteran free agents from other clubs are considering Pittsburgh as a viable option, again at a discount relative to what they might be able to receive elsewhere. The really good news is that other teams can’t quickly follow. You can’t transform team culture overnight, and most wouldn’t know how to do it if they could.
It was true last year and perhaps even more so now.
This is not a piece about predictions. My middle name is not Nostradamus. You could argue that the Steelers' season last year turned on three plays that if they had gone another way would have changed everything. What this is about are the conditions and issues that will effect this franchise's chances of winning its seventh Lombardi this season.
Leadership and the Big Three
Art Rooney II revealed earlier this year that it was possible that Dan Rooney would return to the team at some point this year in some capacity. Nothing has happened on that front so far. Nor has there been any discussion or concern about it. That is certainly not because there is any reduction in love or respect for Dan Rooney. What is changing is the level of confidence and comfort in the leadership of Art Rooney II. The most dramatic recent example of this is the new rule change allowing for the placing of one player on Injured Reserve who can return later this year. This was proposed by Rooney in March with benefits accruing to the Steelers if they decide to use it in the case with David De Castro. The only hiccup over the past year was the handling of the dismissal of Bruce Arians. Otherwise he has proven to be just as wise, influential and effective as his father league-wide, in the Pittsburgh community and at the helm of Steeler Nation. Now we are on much firmer footing in saying that Dan Rooney has done as good a job in preparing his son for leadership of the franchise as the Chief did with him.
Any questions about Kevin Colbert? Not enough has been made I think of the quality of this year's draft given their draft position. Who had a better draft? All but one of the draftees made the team or the practice squad (Fredericks a 7th rounder). Success with identifying quality UDFAs continued as two (Robinson and Golden) made the 53 man roster. Three of four signed free agents (Cotchery, Pope and Brandon Johnson) also made the roster. Some mention should be made of Omar Khan who was promoted this year. Not so much talk these days about the supposed inability of the team to get around its salary cap concerns. Limitations may eventually come into play, but not to the extent that many feared six months ago.
Mike Tomlin was extended to 2016 and presumably got a raise. This means stability at the leadership level for the next half decade at least. Tomlin continues to be underrated and undervalued nationally, but that puts him in the good company of his predecessors (Noll and Cowher) who also tended to be overlooked or taken for granted. The impact of his style and philosophy have become clearer as the team on both a player and staff level become more an expression of his values and will.
If there is a better combination of president, gm and head coach I'd like to hear about it. There is a certain logic in assuming that the Steelers should take a step back this year. Talent and leadership was lost with the exit of Farrior, Hoke, Smith and Ward. The AFC North is arguably the most competitive in the NFL. Instead of taking a step back Steeler Nation and even a growing number of outsiders are suspecting that Pittsburgh may actually take a step forward this year and will remain competitive for the foreseeable future. If so it is due primarily because of the foundation established by it's leadership team.
Bruce Arians is gone, an outcome that was hoped for and expected by many in Steeler Nation. Al Everest is gone which was totally unexpected. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley may be the greatest unknown and potentially the greatest factor impacting the possible success or lack thereof for the team moving forward. I believe that the particulars of the new offense are still largely unknown and will only be unveiled this coming Sunday in Denver. And it won't reach full maturity until later in the season. Much has been made of the inevitablility of conflict between Haley and Ben. This may reflect wishful thinking more so than anything. It is depressing, the extent that the appetite for entertainment overwhelms and distorts our attention. Just think how much the New York Jets have dominated media coverage and how crazy that is considering that the world champions reside right across town. Two factors to consider when thinking about there being any kind of Ben vs Todd feud. When questioned about his behavior earlier this summer, Haley pointed out that he was operating in the context of two teams, Arizona and Kansas City, that had losing cultures. I read that as meaning he was dealing with mindsets and habits that would undermine what was trying to be accomplished. Being in a winning situation, and also a product of the culture himself there may not be much in the way of any conflict here. But if there is do you really think that Tomlin is going to stand by and watch a circus unfold in front of him? Not likely.
The next question is whether Amos Jones is up to the task of running special teams. Whatever the philosophical differences that existed with Everest the Steelers managed to avoid being the dead Indians in another team's cowboy movie for the most part over the past couple of years. Will this continue under Jones or must we endure a period of bad field position, cheap touchdowns and heartburn?
Last year we were as concerned about the state of the defensive secondary as we have been about the offensive line. Carnell Lake has changed all of that in one year. How credible and visionary does defensive line coach John Mitchell become when he declared in a news conference in April to not overlook or write off Steve McLendon. If you have been paying attention there have been some gripes here and there about offensive line coach Sean Kugler. Some would like him to take the fall for the impatience and unrealistic expectations involving the evolution of the O line, as well as their injury woes.
Hopefully we won't forget too quickly the remarkable recovery made by running backs coach Kirby Wilson from his accident in January, and the fine job he has done with preparing his charges for the season. Scottie Montgomery is currently tasked with getting Mike Wallace up to speed for the season opener. Keith Butler will be tested this year with injury fueled turmoil with his linebackers. And you get the feeling somehow that in spite of the turnover (three of the four departed veterans were defensive players), aging veterans and inexperienced youth that Dick LeBeau's defense will continue to be the state of the art in the league or very close to being so.
With Arians gone, at least the theory goes, coaching will not be a major impediment to team success. There will be issues. Time will tell whether they will have a significant impact on team success. Tomlin's evolution as a tactitian and game manager is one area of concern. How things fall out with special teams is another. And then there is the offense.
It's unclear as of this writing when we will know if Todd Haley's offense is the answer that Steeler Nation is hoping for. If they put up 30 or more on Sunday then we'll have the answer immediately. But if they struggle early that does not necessarily mean the system is a bust. Unfamiliarity is a two edged sword, creating discomfort for the Denver defense, but perhaps also the Steeler offense as well. What can be said with certainty is that the offensive toolbox is as well stocked with potent and diverse weaponry as I can recall. Barring injury (and you can attach that phrase to just about everything that follows), what Andy Benoit wrote for the season preview of the Steelers for the New York Times says it best; the Pittsburgh offense has the potential to be "borderline unstoppable".
The good news here is that for the first time in a long time the team goes into the season with a totally healthy quarterback corps. I also believe it is the very best group in the league as measured by the combination of talent, experience and leadership. As Kevin Colbert has pointed out and many reading this need to think more deeply about, all three quarterbacks have been NFL starters, not just starting a game here or there, but the face of their respective franchises for years. Their ability to win games at this level is not a hypothetical issue, they have the resume.
Ben Roethlisberger is arguably the most underrated elite quarterback in the league. The case can be made that his best football may still be ahead of him. If so, given an offensive line that could potentially be one of the best eventually and a level of quality and depth at the skill positions that may be second to none, the prospects could be frightening for opponents. There is really no adequate substitute for Ben if he should go down, but both Leftwich and Batch have demonstrated that they can play winning ball if need be. However, as important as the ability to step up in the case of an emergency, if your focus is solely on this particular aspect you seriously miss the point and their value to the team.
When asked earlier this summer who was the most important influence in his development as a player, Antonio Brown responded "Byron Leftwich". Batch in addition to being a leader in the lockerroom and a pillar of the community is also as a member of the NFLPA executive board, one of the most influencial leaders in the entire league. As my colleague Neal Coolong has said, the value of a back up quarterback is in helping the starting quarterback in his preparation for games. In other words, the true value of Leftwich and Batch is behind the scenes beyond the obvious. Imagine what it must be like when those three put their heads together in the quarterback room. Imagine the stabilizing influence they have in the locker room. And lets be realistic here. If the fate of the team comes down to the third string quarterback, that team is pretty much screwed already.
The Achilles Heel of this group is their propensity for injury, so the fact that they have made it to this point unscathed is huge. If this group remains relatively healthy throughout the season then...
Most Intriguing. Ben. Let's be clear about one thing. All the conversation about backups is an artifact of preseason football. If Leftwich or Batch are anything but invisible moving forward then that means that something has gone horribly wrong. We got a taste of what Ben is capable of with his touchdown drive against Buffalo. Also of great interest is not only that Ben was named a team captain, but there are only two team captains. With Farrior, HInes and Aaron gone, Ben is now a leader by both position and tenure. If given the latitude to run the no huddle then the Steelers becomes Ben's team in pretty much every way imaginable. I stated above that Ben is underrated. There is the possibility of a leap here on the competitive side, and the opportunity to complete the rehabilitation of his reputation.
I get the sense that there is a bit of disappointment associated with this group entering the season. Of course a lot of that is in direct relation to the injury suffered by 1st round draft pick David De Castro. But I also believe that many of us set ourselves up for some short term disillusionment because we believed that the impact of the upgrades to the O line would be immediate and dramatic. A few things to remember; some of the best players that have played for this organization took some time to get acclimated. Alan Faneca didn't start immediately, neither did Troy Polamalu. It would be best if we view Maurkice Pouncey as an anomaly. Even if he hadn't been injured it was clear that De Castro would take some time to get up to speed, as is the case for Mike Adams, and I suspect that Marcus Gilbert is still trying to get his bearings. In addition, quality of talent aside, the starting group is new and is playing in a novel configuration. Offensive line play is emsemble work and until they have accumulated some mileage playing together as a group, the maximum potential of this crew won't be realized.
Putting the best face on it, if the De Castro injury had to happen (and wishing for an injury free situation is unrealistic) then it is probably best that it happens now. He'll be available when the team will likely need him the most, for the run of divisional games and the playoffs. This group should be able to excel if Ramon Foster constitutes its weak link. The most important thing is to minimize the injuries that this unit incurs down the road. Give them time to develop chemistry. The left side, Pouncey, Colon and Starks is particularly intriguing to me. If Foster and Gilbert can do credible work on the right side then that may be enough. The supporting cast of Adams and Legursky is solid. And for those of you who are fond of projects and youth movements let me introduce you to Kelvin Beachum. Yes, he looked bad at times in the preseason games. But if you believe that those games are the only criteria of judgment, well think again. Position flexibility, intelligence and his upside potential is probably what saved him thus far. Other players may have seemed stronger than him at the moment, but what you saw was probably all you were going to get, no upside, maybe said more accurately, lesser upside.
Most Intriguing. Willie Colon. Even without the injury to De Castro the most intriguing prospect would probably still be Willie Colon. Colon rose to the level of being considered one of the top right tackles in professional football. The consensus of both professionals and fans is that Willie is better suited to the position of guard. Even with the relative unevenness of the line play this preseason, the run blocking was impressive. (For example, Mike Adams' difficulties were not in the area of run blocking). The fight that Colon started when he pancaked Lawrence Timmons speaks to both ability and attitude. It would be no surprise to me if he managed to qualify for Hawaii (Hopefully he'll won't be able to attend due to other obligations).
It's true that the team is carrying six backs because of injury, but I don't have any problem with any one of the six and hope that somehow all of them will remain part of the roster throughout the entire year. Not only are they all competent, but they also bring different and complementary skills to the team. The only disappointment with Isaac Redman was his inability to stay healthy this summer. Otherwise he delivered on all of our expectations. (Well, maybe not the supernatural stuff, but he may be saving that for the regular season). Earlier this summer I suggested that the light may have come on for Jonathan Dwyer, but I added that it was probably only at a flicker. Let me apologize to Mr. Dwyer. It is indicative of his progress that there has been a vigorous debate about who should start at running back in Denver. Difficult to imagine that we would be arguing between the alternatives of Redman or Dwyer.
Chris Rainey is the one draft choice who has met and exceeded expectations. Were it not for a couple of unnecessary holding penalties Rainey would have scored a remarkable four touchdowns, each run spanning over 40 yards, the longest 90. So Rainey is the third down back, right? Case closed? Two things. First Rainey is incapable of being an effective blocking back. And do we want to have him running between the tackles, particularly given how he was roughed up during preseason? Which brings us to Baron Batch. The criticism of Batch was that he wasn't that impressive a runner. But he never had the opportunity to run behind the number ones. I watched during training camp and saw that despite his diminutive size relative to his fellow backs he was the best blocker in the backs on backer drills. The hustle and block that he threw on Antonio Brown's touchdown run against the Colts may have been enough in and of itself to earn him his helmet.
Most Intriguing. Rashard Mendenhall. Two questions about Mendy. When will he actually return? The conventional wisdom seems to say sometime like Halloween. But there has been some discussion as to whether he would be available for the game on Sunday. To be sure Tomlin wants to blow some smoke as to the availability of personnel, creating uncertainty with the preparations of the Broncos. So let's split the difference and say that he may be back by Columbus Day weekend. The more important question is how effective will he be. Some will hope that he recovers to the level he has enjoyed in previous seasons, but there is also the possibility that he might be better. Much is made of how offensive line and changes in the offensive concept might add to the effectiveness of Ben, the receivers and the other backs. Is it possible that Rashard has attracted unfair crticism because of how he has had to cope with unreliable blocking? Has he done so much spinning in reaction to the lack of clean running lanes? Is it so hard to imagine that if Redman and Dwyer can look like world beaters with this O line group that Mendenhall may rise to a completely different level as well?
Arguably, the most talented position group top to bottom on the offense and perhaps the entire team. The potential of this group can be summed up rather simply. When adding Rainey into the mix you have a group that has four players that are capable of scoring from any point on the field at any time. It is hard to get used to the idea that there is this much explosive speed that is wearing black and gold. One or maybe two, yes. But four? Mind boggling.
Most Intriguing. Emmanuel Sanders. There are some things that we have forgotten about Sanders. The original 'two dogs one bone' metaphor was speaking to the competition between him and Antonio Brown, a competition that Sanders won. Before Chris Rainey splashed on to the scene Sanders was in line to be the teams primary return specialist. Sanders development has been blunted by injury and he has become an afterthought to the more spectacular performances of Wallace, Brown and even newcomer Rainey. But if he can manage to stay healthy this year imagine the damage he can do when he is likely to be matched against the third or fourth best defensive back of the opponent. They cannot afford to not dedicate their best talent to attempt to stop Brown, Rainey and Wallace. If you have forgotten, Sanders gave a taste of what he is capable of this past Thursday against the Panthers. There is quite an opportunity here.
Based upon what we witnessed during the preseason it would be understandable to think that tight end play has been devalued and overlooked in the new offense. Don't believe it. I simply don't believe that we won't be seeing a lot of Heath Miller this fall. The position has been weakened a bit by the suspension of Saunders and the loss of David Johnson. But if Saunders is still in the team's plans in October and opponent's defensive resources are stressed by the running back by committee and the Jamaican track team of wideouts, it could be the tight ends that break their backs.
Most Intriguing. Weslye Saunders. I'm rooting hard for this young man as I believe the he and Miller are the Steelers answer to the Patriots duo of Grotkowski and Hernandez. Dale Lolley wrote about this exchange between Tomlin and Saunders during camp.
"Hey Wes, want proof that I don’t hold grudges?" Tomlin asked the second-year tight end.
When Saunders nodded, Tomlin simply replied, "You’re still here."
Just in case you were wondering whether Saunders was skating on thin ice. He probably did enough to retain a spot on the team once his suspension is over. I believe that he could be a difference maker if given the opportunity.
(Part II Defense coming soon to Behind The Steel Curtain)