The Pittsburgh Steelers paved their road into the 2013 season with the best of intentions, and they wound up right where the old saying said they would.
No one expected them to lose the first four games of the season.
To their credit, the team finally had enough. They put their collective foot in the turf at MetLife Stadium, and pushed back. They have been pressing ever since. Every week became a 'must-win' game -- in Week 6 of a 16-game schedule.
Unfortunately, pressing requires blinders. The team must be able focus on the task at hand - which was winning at all costs - and nothing else. Such focus leaves one vulnerable to what it chooses not to acknowledge.
The Steelers pressed especially hard on their offensive line, which had become the centerpiece of every low-light reel recap of the four-game losing streak. The group did enough to help the team win in against the New York Jets, and they pressed the Baltimore Ravens for the team's best rushing performance of the year.
Judging by the final scores of each game, the Steelers were successful in improving their line; the problem is they focused primarily on their starters. They ignored the chance injury would strike again.
Pittsburgh had already dealt with its fair share of injuries by this point. They lost Maurkice Pouncey in Week 1. The team signed Fernando Velasco, who studied up enough to become the starter. The Steelers also had Cody Wallace on the roster because he has experience at both guard and center, but he had been inactive every week until the team tried to extend their winning streak to three against the Oakland Raiders in Week 8.
Against the Raiders, the Steelers lost Ramon Foster, Guy Whimper and David DeCastro, who will be forced to also miss the Week 9 contest against the New England Patriots. Wallace, who had finally been activated as insurance due to the pectoral strain Foster had been nursing from the Ravens game. When he was actually called on to the field because the team had exhausted all other options, he played well enough for a guy who looked like he hadn't been getting a whole bunch of practice reps.
The team is expected to have Foster, who is recovering from a concussion, back against the Patriots; as they do Whimper. Whimper, or Abdullah the Butcher, hyper-extended his knee against the Raiders, but is expected to take DeCastro's right guard spot. Suddenly, Wallace is the only reserve guard. Kelvin Beachum is the new starting left tackle, and the team seems to want to keep him there.
It's hard to blame the team for ignoring Wallace in previous weeks. They had to figure out their LT situation. They had to stop letting Ben Roethlisberger get hit. They had to get the running game going. These are instances which required focus on starters, and the occasional Beachum, for maximum efficiency.
The offensive line isn't the only place on the depth chart where ignored lower ranks have exposed themselves. The team's insistence on Isaac Redman, Jason Worilds and David Paulson being ready for significant roles without significant evidence led to problems in each positional group. Jonathan Dwyer had to be re-signed. David Johnson had to be retreaded. Jarvis Jones is off, on and off the field again.
While hindsight says each were mistakes on the team's part, the team was focused on more pressing issues. Rookie Le'Veon Bell was being trained to start his first NFL season. Redman had been around the block a few times, and most expected him to be a reliable back up. Bell got hurt, Redman got promoted and now is unemployed after being everything but reliable. No one expected Redman to regress so far.
The recovery of Heath Miller and the lisfranc injury to Matt Spaeth left the team in a sticky situation. Miller was not expected to miss much of the season, so the team just needed to survive a few games until his return. Unfortunately, after an entire year's experience supplemented with an NFL-level strength and training program, Paulson has actually regressed as a blocker; so much so, he quickly fell below David Johnson and Heath Miller on the depth chart. He still makes spot appearances at times, and the Steelers pay for it every time. No one expected a player to regress beyond their rookie ability in their second season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the team was adjusting to Steve McLendon at nose tackle. Schemes were adjusted to move defensive ends deeper into the backfield. No one expected Larry Foote to be lost in Week 1 with Pouncey. The team was already grooming Jones and fellow rookies Shamarko Thomas and Vince Williams for roles both now and the future; however, none were wanted to start. Thomas had Polamalu and Clark in front of him. Williams had Foote, who until his torn bicep had been playing as consistent as ever. Worilds has spent his entire career backing up LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, seeing extensive time spelling both men. He knew the system, and the team's expectations.
Worilds has yet give the team a complete game as a starter. He has played very well when playing backup to Jones, but when Jones is demoted, Worilds regresses.
Every single time the Steelers try to focus on an area of weakness in order to correct it, one of the areas they had to ignore to create such focus blows up in their face while they're not looking. Every once in a while is to be expected, but not every single time.
Maybe there were answers in free-agency or other draft picks, but using hindsight in such a manner might as well say, 'the Steelers should've benched Pouncey for that drive, and he'd never have gotten hurt.'
The Steelers are staying out of the hindsight business, training their blinder-restricted focus straight ahead; pressing on. The problem with pressing all the time is eventually you begin pressing too far.
Defenses overplay fake handoffs because they are pressing to succeed in shutting down the run, something they had been failing at in previous weeks. Quarterbacks spend that one extra second too long looking downfield for an open receiver, leaving himself open to sacks and fumbles because he is pressing to carry a struggling offense on his own shoulders. Same can be seen in some of the carelessly errant throws.
The Steelers have struggled to run the ball all season, so they press the run game as a point of emphasis. Now, the team at times tries to force it, in order to reinforce it. All the pressing in the world doesn't take away offensive line injuries. All the pressing in the world doesn't build chemistry between linemates in a week. All pressing does is cause backs to hesitate and double think hole selection, or surrender on a run too early; because all the pressing has made them afraid of the occasional failure.
The Steelers may be able to press themselves in to individual victories, like divisional opponents; but at some point the team has to learn to play without the press. They have to learn to win without life-or-death consequences.
The constant pressure is taking an obvious toll on the locker room. One week Antonio Brown is reported to 'arguing' with offensive coordinator Todd Haley about his role in the offense, Then, the Steelers start winning and Brown begins posting all-time type numbers - no more arguing. Now, the team has lost one game and fingers are already being levied at Brown.
The Steelers need to maintain their sense of urgency because their season depends on it, but their locker room could do with a little less pressure if it's going to actually survive a deep run into the post-season. If team can't learn to win on a simmer, they'll burn out before it ever gets here.
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