The state of the Steelers after the first quarter of 2013

Jamie McDonald

According to the standings no team in professional football is worse than the Pittsburgh Steelers. What is intriguing is trying to ascertain what this failure means.

There isn't much wiggle room with 0-4. The only thing worse than 0-4 would be 0-5. Steeler Nation gets a one week reprieve before facing that possibility, which can be either a good or very bad thing depending upon your state of mind. In the one measure that matters most the Steelers have failed every time they have taken the field (preseason too) in 2013. So how is it that there can be any conversation at all about whether or not this is a bad team? Understanding that the only reliable answers will come with time, we can, nonetheless, ask some quality, contemplative questions about the state of this team during the Bye. What else better do we have to do with the time?

Chuck Noll is in the running for being one of the most under appreciated great coaches in the history of this league. Perhaps my favorite example of his wisdom was when he stated that things are not as good as they seem when they are going well or as bad as they may seem when they aren't. So when players such as Ryan Clark say that, in spite of the bottom line facts, the Steelers are not a bad team, and journalists such a Jim Wexall and Dale Lolley concur, they might not be mouthing false optimism, or being silly or delusional.

I'll get into more specific questions below, let's start with the most fundamental issue first. How can you go 0-4 and not be a bad team? Hombre de Acero quotes well known Washington DC radio personality, the late Ken Beatrice

"Very few teams ‘win’ games in the NFL. Far more often it is a case of the other team doing something to lose a game."

Hombre takes it a bit further

But 0-4 isn’t nearly as disturbing as the reality that in each step it took to arrive there, the Pittsburgh Steelers mastered a new lesson in the art of learning to lose games.

In Part One of a series I wrote on making a case for the Steelers a month ago I framed it a little differently, but essentially raised the same challenge

The potential problems are that they, as well as a number of other individuals and position groups are young and/or inexperienced. They certainly can compete, but can they compete at the high end, championship level? This is really what the standard is about. It is something that teams must learn to do, and it really transcends things such as high end talent, clever schemes and the like.

I have no doubt that this group can figure it out and learn to win.

Obviously they haven't figured it out yet. And as Hombre warns they are learning how to lose. It may be only now that many fans are coming to understand what the advantages are in having a deep, experienced team with a championship pedigree. Those teams could overcome things such as poor offensive line play or bad luck and still manage to master enough of the little things to win football games. This team simply can't do that. The margin for error is much narrower. Bad play (Adams' pass protection, poor tackling by the defense), mistakes (Ben's turnovers), bad luck (injuries against Tennessee, Woodley's strip fumble that bounces the wrong way against Minnesota), missed opportunities (Ike Taylor's drops) pay immediate dividends in the loss column. The little things are the big things and this team has not mastered enough of the little things to prevail.

Coaching

To what extent are the team's failures linked to coaching? Or, put another way, has the Steelers' coaching staff somehow become incompetent? Or, were they never any good to begin with and were just the fortunate beneficiaries of quality talent? Or, is it all Haley's fault, or Tomlin's?

Possibly. But to be honest unless you can definitively establish that a team is unprepared, and sometimes that is difficult to nail down, then coaching can become the easy 'black box' answer to any number of inadequate outcomes. For example, does poor execution mean that players were poorly prepared, performed badly in spite of the quality of preparation, or some combination of the two.

Take tackling. The Steelers did a poor job of it on several occasions on Sunday. As has been mentioned by any number of commentators the Steelers have been historically lauded as one of the better tackling teams in the NFL. It's hard to imagine how they could be one of the top defenses year after year without that being so. So what gives? The coaching staff is the same group of guys, with the exception of Carnell Lake, since the Cowher regime. Is it likely that they all of the sudden became negligent or senile? Again, possible. I don't know that much about this game, but what I do remember is the best method of teaching tackling is to actually tackle somebody. The Steelers aren't alone in exhibiting bad tackling, its epidemic around the league in my opinion. Could the new training rules be a factor? Or could it be rule changes that create uncertainty and sap the aggressiveness necessary to thwart the offense? Or was it just that Adrian Peterson is a bad man?

How about Haley? His offense put up nearly thirty points with a leaky offensive line and no significant help from either the defense or special teams. In most instances in the past you would figure that would be enough to win. For all of his flaws Haley does not fumble, throw interceptions or gives up sacks. However, coaches are accountable for their player's performance. It comes with the territory.

There are legitimate reasons to fault coaching, but also some illegitimate reasons as well. 1) You don't like a particular coach. So you wait for whatever reason that comes along that you think you can get away with pinning a team's problems on him and calling for his dismissal. 2) You have no earthly idea what's wrong but someone has to pay, and the coach is responsible, so, hey. 3) Football wise, you have attention deficit issues. Consequently, developmental issues that are not microwavable such as the evolution of the offensive line, or adapting to the speed of the game are beyond your comprehension, (or maybe you just don't want to comprehend, you want what you want and you want it now), and that translates into a coaching problem.

The best answer to this set of questions is that we will find out as Tomlin and company traverse virgin territory in his head coaching tenure and attempt to cope and profit from this rocky beginning.

Offensive line

Are these guys just bad, are they poorly coached or do they just need time? We can all agree, for example, that Mike Adams played terrible this past week, but why?

It's easy to single out Mike Adams for the poor game that he had Sunday in London. Jared Allen has done that to a number of tackles in the NFL.

But it's way too early to give up on Adams. It's easy to forget that he was making his eighth career start Sunday against the Vikings. And it was just his fourth start at left tackle.

Lolley also has a different take on Marcus Gilbert (as does our own Steel34D) than those who dismiss him as useless

On the other side, Marcus Gilbert played a very solid game.

Some have suggested flipping the two again. I wouldn't. Let Gilbert settle in. He played well last week against Chicago and followed that up with another solid effort. Don't mess with that.

Why, you may ask can't these guys play as well as DeCastro. You may have forgotten the Cincinnati game last December. There are learning curves that need to be respected. I personally find offensive line play an area where my perceptions in the heat of the moment can be shaky or flat out wrong. I believe ensemble play in general (we'll get to defense shortly) is subject to misreading of the 'hows' and 'whys' when breakdowns occur. Gilbert in particular may be cursed with being Colon 2.0; a player whose past failings will continually color the perceptions of some observers regardless of what his performance may be moving forward. Does anyone see the irony in the embrace of Kelvin Beachum in light of how he was pilloried just a year ago as a failure and a waste of a seventh round draft choice?

Then there is the observation made by Phil Simms during Sunday's broadcast pointing out that Ben's game is such that he will often take all the time his offensive line will give him to make a play. Some sacks certainly are caused by immediate breakdowns in protection, but others come after an adequate period of quality play. Its the price of doing business with
Roethlisberger. As Tomlin has said in the past, it is a problem the vast majority of the teams in this league would love to have.

Adams has now been benched in favor of Beachum. (And Levi Brown has been picked up from the Cardinals. About time we got something back from Pittsburgh West). That doesn't answer whether Adams' issues are primarily talent or developmentally based. It does, however, introduce another factor, confidence. Hopefully, the same qualities that came to the fore when he approached the team and lobbied for consideration to be a part of all this will pull him through this trial. Another consideration, sort of a back burner kind of thing, but might there be any lingering impact of having being stabbed that might effect his current circumstances, or is that just a pathetic grasping at straws to justify a failure? I honestly don't know. I've never had that experience, but on television people seem to bounce back from such things as though not much happened (This would be sarcasm if you haven't figured that out yet). Just something to file away.

Defense

For years we have been told and sold on the idea that players just don't show up and walk on to Dick LeBeau's defense. It, supposedly, is a complex thing that requires literally years, in most cases, to master. Now we have a rookie and another player who is pretty wet behind the ears as well calling the signals and patrolling the middle of said defense. Last year when this group struggled it was pointed out that with the injuries to players like Harrison and Polamalu, and the loss of stalwarts like Farrior, Smith and Hoke, that players were trying to over compensate and in doing so creating breakdowns in the system. With at least two rookies on the field much of the time and a third with limited experience (Cortez Allen), how could this not be, once again, a legitimate concern? Again, we are talking about ensemble work, and again the same questions that have been raised with the offense are valid, though I would say that the evidence would suggest that competence is probably less of an issue than just the time necessary for Jones, Williams/Wilson, McLendon, etc. to really get the system.

Troy, Ike, Keisel and Woodley are all playing at the levels that we have come to expect from them. Heyward and Hood have silenced their critics. Thomas, Jones and Williams show promise when you consider that they are first year guys being thrown in the fire when in years past they could have, and likely would have been brought along more judiciously. My concern would be Timmons who has not built on the momentum of last year's performance. Whether he has been the one who has most greatly been impacted by the loss of Larry Foote remains to be seen, but he appears to have taken a step back.

But regardless of how well some of these guys are playing, defense in general, and this system in particular is only as strong as its weakest links. Opposing offensive coordinators have sufficient targets to attempt to exploit with the Steelers D until it matures.

Running backs

How could you not get excited about Le'Veon Bell? The answer is if you are in the midst of going 0-4. Like the majority of us who did not have the opportunity to watch him in training camp and were cautious given the lack of almost any game experience, even preseason, the fact that Bell satisfied expectations for the most part with his debut is pretty significant. In a year when a number of newcomers have stepped up to make an immediate impact, Bell is clearly tracking to be the star of this group. With all the appropriate disclaimers for health considerations, it would appear that the muddle that has been the running back situation on this team is clearing up. Just based upon what little we've seen so far, Bell and Jonathan Dwyer look to be a potent and promising solution moving forward. A healthy LSH would have made things even better. This raises interesting questions about Redman and Felix Jones. My guess would be that if Bell's development continues (and given that he's had, what, fewer than twenty game reps, you have to assume that there is plenty of upside here) then one of these two will be in street clothes on most game days, or perhaps out of the picture altogether to make way for needs in other areas.

Tight ends

This was a huge area of concern going into the season with the big question being how long would Heath Miller be shelved and how long after he returned would it take for him to recover form. We now know the answer was three and four games respectively. David Paulson's shortcomings as a blocker was an impediment for an offense trying to find its way in the first two games. I believe from this point forward tight end will return to being a strength of the offense. This is not just because of the return of Miller, but also because David Johnson has reached the point where he has picked up where he left off when he was injured last year. DJ is another one of those players who just seems to rub a lot of fans the wrong way for reasons that I don't pretend to understand. When compared with, say, Will Johnson (whom I like, btw) fans seem to swoon over WJ even though DJ usually outperforms him. In any case with DJ and Miller playing well as both blockers and receivers Matt Spaeth becomes something of a non issue, and perhaps even a problem since I believe that in spite of his current struggles that Paulson can figure prominently in the long term future of this team.

Wide receivers

Easily the brightest spot in a dismal first quarter has been the play of the receiving corps. All five players have acquitted themselves well for the most part. I believe credit is due to Richard Mann who has delivered exactly what he promised, a group of competent professionals top to bottom.

The most promising story is Antonio Brown who is playing at a Pro Bowl level. A question entering the season was whether AB could continue to produce at a high level as a number one receiver without the presence of Mike Wallace. The answer is that he's even better than before. Sanders has also received high marks in the early going. Cotchery had probably his best game as a Steeler on Sunday after a couple of disappointing efforts. The performances of these three veterans has allowed for Wheaton and Moye to be brought along in a reasonable manner with Wheaton's role increasing during the last game.

Ben

I'm inclined to reserve judgment here until he's had an opportunity to lead an offense that is finally something close to being fully intact. Bell and Miller are significant weapons, and if the offense is capable of putting up totals in the thirty point range, it hard to imagine that they won't win some games, especially if they can keep turnovers under control. In fact, it could be argued that turnovers could be the difference between being, say, 3-1. Fully weaponized its harder for defenses to focus purely on stopping Ben which they could afford to do thus far. I have problems with the execution and some of the decision making related to this offense, but conceptually it can be a nightmare for a lot of teams.

Special teams

They haven't hurt, which is a rather large step in the right direction. Whether they can actually help remains to be seen. Suisham remains a steady bright spot. Its still not altogether clear to me how Zoltan Mesko is that much of an improvement over Butler, but he's certainly not bad. In addition to their various contributions in the offense and defense, Shamarko Thomas, Jarvis Jones and Markus Wheaton have also been making significant plays on special teams.

Injuries and the Bye

Though the first week was devastating the remainder of the first quarter was rather kind on the injury front. Only Ramon Foster would seem questionable going into the second quarter of the season. Usually a time to try to get healthy and rested, the purpose and value of a Bye this season is go back to the lab, make corrections and hope that it serves to break the negative momentum. For a young team it is important learning time; a mini training camp possibly.

The biggest challenges facing this team in the second quarter are likely to not be physical or easily measurable by observers. As Hombre has pointed out, the Steelers are in a space where negativity and failure have most of the leverage. What happens in that locker room over the next couple of weeks could be crucial to whether this team recovers or goes into some sort of death spiral that could lead to more radical consequences down the road. This would be unfortunate because this team does have the foundation of talent to be competitive for years to come. It would be a shame if this opportunity is squandered early, and the group having to be blown up as a result.

Also important is how the organization responds to the reactions of the media and the fan base. In theory that shouldn't matter, but in practice in a lot of places it does to a greater extent than anyone would care to admit. The tendency of media types to sow and feed on controversy and a segment of impatient fans to demand quick, thoughtless fixes can have their effect. You would think that the Steelers would be more resistant to that sort of thing, and I believe that is certainly true of ownership and management. A group of young impressionable players is another matter altogether. Perhaps the best thing going for them now are the Pirates. A nice positive distraction.

So how should we view the future. Well, again that depends on your point of view. It would be crazy to imagine that any team that is 0-4 should be thinking of anything but draft position and related issues. However, it would be equally crazy for a team that is two games out of first place with a dozen games remaining to give up on the season. Crazy to give up, crazy not to. It all turns on whether or not they can win a game.

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