Why denial may be at the root of the Steelers’ season so far

Harry Engels

There’s no denying the Steelers’ record, and how they achieved it speaks for itself. Instead of rehashing the how, this is an examination of a possible mindset that is behind the team’s worst start since 1968.

Elite athletes have learned how to deny acknowledging the pain signals their bodies send to their brains while they train themselves to the point of exhaustion, or when they suffer broken bones and torn muscles during games but continue playing; by being able to deny that pain they are able to will their bodies to perform at levels most of us cannot comprehend.

But denial can be a subtle succubus as well, singing a siren song of illusion and presumption causing the unwary to ignore the warning signs of hidden shoals until the team's keel is torn asunder upon the rocky shores of poor draft picks, questionable management tactics and roster decisions.

Denial is what impels a team to accept an ugly win and blithely move on, game after game, ugly win following ugly win, without taking stock of what made it ugly; denial is what impels a head coach not to have a true backup center on the roster as the season opened, or to give a game day helmet to a backup he later paints with the "below the line" brush.

Denial is a two edged sword that must be wielded deftly. It must be wielded with certainty tempered by objectivity, with a touch of humility.

In the hands of the undisciplined, the overconfident or those accustomed to the status quo the sword of denial can result in self-inflicted wounds.

A coach who preaches concepts and platitudes, who allows himself (or his staff) to become enamored with one low round draft pick as the multi-position solution to the problem of depth for an entire unit; a head coach who is so uncompromising with a running back who had a couple of fumbles that he cuts him only to find himself re-signing the back and starting him over the back who was initially favored and is now benched; a head coach who prefers requiring a hard-hitting camp, but allows receivers to showboat after routine plays or throw tantrums instead of going after the defender who just intercepted a pass; these coaches find themselves searching for answers and reacting, not teaching and leading.

In the hands of the resolute however, the sword of denial can be raised for all to follow as The Standard. It is the refusal to accept anything less than adherence to basic proven fundamentals like footwork, hand placement, tackling, route running, 60 minutes of focus, and through this adherence provide the basic building blocks upon which the individual players' talents can leverage the team to success. It is the refusal to allow the extraneous to creep into the daily routine and crowd out those same fundamentals, whether performed by veteran or rookie. Once upon a time a Steeler head coach got down into a stance and showed a veteran player how by moving his foot six inches, he could become better, then demanded of all his veterans that they adhere to the fundamentals he was teaching just as he did the rookies. And it was those fundamentals that created the Steelers' Standard.

If the underlying fundamentals are sound, using the sword of denial as The Standard means the general manager, coaches and players collectively have dedicated themselves making such fundamentals part of everything they do as they strive towards a goal regardless of the stinging cuts of mistakes coming from the sharp edge of a learning curve, or the frustration that comes from the expected defeats along the way. That was the way a dynasty was born.

The Steelers hired Jack Bicknell Jr. after the 2012 season in part to institute an outside zone blocking scheme meant to maximize the effectiveness of the re-emphasized running game, as well as the talents and attributes of the very young and inexperienced offensive line comprised of one first round pick (David DeCastro) and two second round picks (Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert). While he played both tackle positions (as well as guard) in college, Gilbert was drafted ostensibly to replace Max Starks at left tackle. Adams played primarily right tackle last year for the Steelers, and showed signs of being effective in the running game. In addition, Bicknell managed to get a former player of his, Guy Whimper, through training camp and onto the final roster.

However, for some reason Bicknell and head coach Mike Tomlin decided to switch Adams and Gilbert during training camp. Now both have been struggling through all four games; one player struggling in a position not best suited to his skill set, the other in a position he'd rather not play.

And more puzzling is why Tomlin in his answer to the question as to why help wasn't given to Mike Adams against the Vikings, said that aside from Kelvin Beachum (who was in the game for Ramon Foster) "...anybody else we would have put in there would have been below the line of preparation, so there's no answers in that regard". Yet it was Tomlin who approved Whimper as the second and only other offensive line backup activated for the game.

Something fundamental is not working: underperforming or failed draft picks, miscommunications between the sideline and the field at crucial moments, defensive players failing to execute basic tackling fundamentals, offensive players not focused on the ball nor playing through to the whistle, and both the final roster selection as well as decisions on who will be active week-to-week, all seem to be made without any discernible logic or rationale. The problem doesn't reside with just one person, or one job position. It appears throughout the organization, from the Front Office down, from the coaching staff to the 53rd man.

Once upon a time, the Steelers were considered a boring team insomuch as they didn't do anything flashy; they executed the basic fundamentals of football with precision but without flair. Executing the fundamentals was the standard to which the players were held and teaching and repeating the fundamentals was the standard to which the coaching staff was held. As a result, what was practiced over and over became "The Standard". What was ingrained into the players were the acts that brought about the desired results, not the result itself. But somewhere along the line something was lost. Instead of focusing on the execution and the teaching and practicing, the mantra itself became the focus; substance became form and quoting the mantra took the place of performing the acts that created it in the first place. This season exemplifies what happens when the end is emphasized (the Standard) as opposed to the means by which the Standard can be achieved.

Focusing on the name of the standard is easier than repeating over and over the hard work, pain and discipline that is required to master the basic steps necessary in setting the standard in the first place.

Denying that there are fundamental flaws in all aspects of the organization, from business management to player selection to coaching, from teaching to leadership, is easy when you have such a history of success as the Steelers have; the siren song of "We got Six" lures us into believing we haven't fallen far. That is, until you realize you're one of four teams left without a victory. There's no denying it then.

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