Pittsburgh has some ground to cover if they are to keep pace for having the worst record in football. The New York Giants have brilliantly broken out to an 0-6 record while Jacksonville is on the short end of a historic point spread as many are predicting that the Denver Broncos may well run them out of the country this weekend. As a result of the bye week, the Steelers are in danger of losing contact with the bottom of the pack making this week's game against the Jets crucial.
Coping with tough times
If six months or six years ago you were told that the Steelers would start a season at 0-4 it wouldn't be too difficult to predict what the conversation would likely be about in Steelers Nation. There would be plenty of speculation and hand wringing as to how we got to this point, followed by a lively debate over whose fault it is and what should be done to punish them for their failings. The fans and media have not disappointed with the usual range of thoughtful reflection to thoughtless vitriol, from calls for patience and gentle tweaks to calls for immediate, radical surgery and all options in between The reactions from the universally felt disappointment and frustration has ranged from befuddlement to sadness, humor to anger. I feared that having two weeks to digest a winless beginning might drive folks off the rails, but maybe the opposite has actually occurred, at least in our little branch of the Nation.
The extra time has given us our a chance for some introspection and to have some conversation in depth. Bob Labriola's analysis I think is fairly typical of what the media has been saying about the matter. Its pretty nuanced, avoiding the extremes of being hyper critical on one hand or apologetic for the team's failings on the other. Anthony Defeo addresses the criticism of head coach Mike Tomlin and the rest of team management with comparisons to similar times of trial faced by the Cowher regime. I take on the question of why so many of us come to divergent conclusions based upon largely the same set of facts. A lot of folks have been attempting to play Tomlin and Cowher off on each other, in the sense of comparing the relative successes of their regimes. Cowher who will be providing commentary on the game gives his take on the status of things Steelers.
What I also think has been extremely helpful is that the Steelers are not standing pat hoping for the best. There have been trades, cuts, re-acquisitions, promotions and demotions. Privileges have been cut, veteran leaders have bared their souls. Whether any of this will make much of a positive difference remains to be seen, but one consequence has been that there is a legitimate sense of mystery heading into this next game. Will it be more of the same? Will there be improvement, and if so will it be enough to result in a win? Is there anyone who feels certain that they have an answer?
Bringing the band back together
This year has been unusual in that a number of faces whom we thought we wouldn't be seeing again are now back in black and gold. During the off season William Gay and Matt Spaeth returned. Then Jonathan Dwyer was brought back after being cut. This week Will Allen who left in free agency returns from the Cowboys, and Stephenson Sylvester who was also cut is back as well. Though bit players for the most part in their previous tenures with the team, all bring the important intangible of having experience as members of Super Bowl teams and are low maintenance in that they are familiar with the systems and the team culture. Sylvester in particular, a victim more of his inability to avoid injury than anything seems to be one of those 'why didn't anyone think of that earlier' kind of moves. Regardless of the potential upside of Williams or Wilson, in the short term his is a more comforting presence based both upon his experience in the system and the special teams benefit he brings.
And who goes
Increasingly it seems to leave the Steelers just means goodbye for now. These moves along with the acquisition of Levi Brown via trade meant that Isiah Greene was released for the second time to make room for Brown. the injured Damon Cromartie-Smith was released to make way for Allen. Kion Wilson was cut for Sylvester, but was brought back to the practice squad where Alan Baxter was bumped to make room. Unless picked up by other teams don't be surprised if we see any or all of these guys again. On a more humorous note, La Toalla Terrible (Spanish for The Terrible Towel and the alter ego of Hombre de Acero) speculates as to who will be the next ex Steeler to return.
Shuffling the deck
Last week Mike Adams lost his starting left tackle job to Kelvin Beachum. This week the shuffling continued. Until it became apparent that Foster would be able to play, it was unclear as to whether Beachum might be moved to the left guard position, with Levi Brown taking the left tackle position. The final decision as to who plays has yet to be made. But the greater shakeup was on defense where Cameron Heyward was moved into the starting lineup in place of Ziggy Hood. William Gay will start in place of Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas is slated to get additional reps at the expense of Ryan Clark. However, unlike Adams who probably won't see the field unless there is an injury, Hood, Allen and Clark are not likely to be riding the bench but just getting reduced reps in favor of players who are performing at a higher level at the moment.
In what many would have characterized as an impossibility as recently as a few months ago, it is reported that Spence will be coming off the PUP list and returning to practice next week. I haven't seen it talked about much but the full impact of his loss was felt when Larry Foote went down the first week of the season. With limited options and latitude in today's NFL it is fair to say that Spence's injury last season had more dire ramifications than some of us may have realized. This also puts this week's roster moves at inside linebacker in a different light. If Sylvester seizes this opportunity and outplays Williams, not an outlandish possibility given that last summer there was sober talk of him possibly successfully competing to be the heir to James Farrior in the middle, then despite his return to the taxi squad, Kion Wilson's days may well be numbered once Spence is ready to go.
Taking away the toys (part two)
In a move that sent shock waves throughout the NFL (it actually is rather surprising how many media outlets bothered to report on this) Mike Tomlin extended the prohibition of recreational games in the locker room to the whole team. Besides the win/loss record, we now will have a reliable barometer for knowing when team management believes that the Steelers are safely back on track; when there are games of pool in the locker room.
Several players have spoken up on the topics of the team's circumstances going into the fifth game as well as assessing their own performances over the first quarter of the season. The defensive secondary was well represented as Troy Polamalu spoke to the state of the defense. Ryan Clark argued to not count the Steelers out of the playoff hunt. And Ike Taylor was subjected to a demotion under Bill Cowher advised his benched teammates to take things "personal". Rookies Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams also spoke to their progress in their first action at this level.
Rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton appears to be the only flat out scratch from Sunday's game, which is a continuation of the relatively gentle treatment the Steelers have received from at the hands of the injury gods since Week One. Guard Ramon Foster was a full participant in practice toward the end of the week and is listed as probable for the game. The biggest injury news of the week is coming from the opposite sideline for a change. Cornerback Damon Cromartie suffered a non contact knee injury on Thursday. It is unknown as I write if he will be available on Sunday. One player definitely not participating this week is tight end Kellen Winslow who will be beginning a four game suspension for Performance Enhancing Drug use.
The 70s Steelers
They were in the news this week. A book on the 70s crew "Their Life's Work" by Gary Pomerantz is due to be released at the end of this month and has garnered good reviews, including from Neal Coolong.
His funeral was this week. This piece, also by Pomerantz, focuses on the his passing which marks the loss of three quarters of the famed Steel Curtain. A word of warning; for me the telling of the last years of these men's lives and the impact it has had on the remaining living member, Joe Greene was poignant and heart breaking, but, also something of a celebration and a reminder of the fragility of life.
On a, perhaps, even more depressing note, we are reminded that the Hall of Fame center's death and autopsy was what began to raise our consciousness to the scourge of head injuries that have ravaged the ranks of NFL alumni. Once again the Steelers are in the lead, but not in a manner that we would like.
The offensive coordinator, no matter what you think of him is without a doubt a person of controversy. His system and methods have been a focal point of the collective naval gazing that the Nation has been conducting over the past two weeks. In addition, he made the news on a non football matter this week as well. In the good news department Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette presents a favorable review of the Steelers offense, pointing out that its rough start may have more to do with the loss of center Maurkice Pouncey and the absence of Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell then with any inherent difficulties with the system.
With the bye there was time for some human interest fare. Theresa Varley of Steelers.com gave us a profile of Steelers nose tackle that was both uplifting and funny. Raised on Tonga, Fangupo experienced some culture shock when he came to the states as a teenager. One of my favorite parts of the article is below.
The place was called Hometown Buffet, a popular all-you-can-eat restaurant in California. After cleaning his plate, Fangupo watched as his cousins went back for more food. He was confused, because going for more was something you never did on the farm. Once the concept of all-you-can-eat was explained it to him, Fangupo said he had found his happy place.
This is where he transitioned from a running back to a defensive lineman.
Agent friendly teams
Jack Bechta conducted an informal survey among sports agents with the goal of identifying which franchises were most trusted in terms of factors such as honesty and relative transparency. The Steelers didn't make the top five but did get an honorable mention.
I think we can muster quite a bit of empathy for the hapless G Men. Their situation has been eerily similar to that of the Steelers. They, along with Pittsburgh are tied with the most Super Bowl victories over the past ten years with two apiece. And thus far neither team can buy a win. We can only hope that when we see them we aren't watching our own future in a couple of weeks.
His son died today after being subjected to a beating by his mother's boyfriend in South Dakota. Our hearts go out to Peterson and his family.