Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The focus for Steelers Nation turns to the future, but for the team their fates will still be determined by present events.

The ending seemed oddly appropriate for this strange and frustrating season. Fighting to the very end the Steelers went into one of those lateral-fests that never seem to work. All that was missing was the Stanford Band. Then Antonio Brown broke free for the miracle finish...just kidding. For the second time this season a big play was derailed by an errant toe that seemed to serve as a pretty good metaphor for all that has happened in 2013.

Assessing the Future

Even though there are three games left to play, everything that transpires is likely to be viewed through the prism of perceived future needs and expectations. Will the team or individual players quit on Tomlin? Who should stay and who should go? Who should play and who should sit? Do Ben and Todd hate each other?

What to make of Tomlin? Colbert? The Rooneys? And the fans and Steelers Nation? Are they spoiled? Crazy? Stupid? Or merely very discriminating? Let's deal with the last set of questions first.

Steelers fans

When the Steelers lose its as if Steelers Nation suffers two deaths; the first at hands of the team, the second from ourselves and each other. The second has been confirmed by a piece that appeared in the Post-Gazette citing a study that states that Steelers fans take losses harder than any fan base in the NFL. The study goes further in providing evidence that we are second only to Raider Nation in our 'instability', which is to say that when our team wins our highs are higher, and when they lose our lows are lower than other fan bases. Put another way, it suggests to me that after a loss (or an entire season like this one) that many of us exhibit symptoms that might be similar to that of clinical depression. Frankly, that would explain a great deal of what goes on around here.

Having said that (Sorry, I couldn't resist. You guys crack me up some times), its actually a lot less gloom and doomy than you might expect given the circumstances. Two reasons for this I would guess. First of all, I live in the Washington DC area. You think the Steelers have problems? You think Pittsburgh has offensive line problems? Offensive coordinator problems? Financial and salary cap issues? Talent issues? Believe me, you ain't seen nothing until you come to Washington. Contemplating firing the head coach? In Pittsburgh there is some of that. But in Washington the consensus is that Mike Shanahan is trying to get fired, begging to get fired (gets more money than if he quits, plus he might be angling for the Houston job some say).

In Pittsburgh there is some concern that some criticisms of Tomlin have racist undertones. There's nothing subtle about the 'Redskins' and the controversy surrounding the name. Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback is enjoying one of his healthier seasons while in Washington there is genuine concern that their quarterback of the future is already broken (permanently) in his second year. There are questions being raised as to whether the team will quit on Tomlin. Washington gave up 37 points in the first half this past Sunday. Concerned about fans leaving early? There were less than 1500 left at FedEx Field at the two minute warning this week. In Pittsburgh the team may have any number of problems all of them fixable eventually. In Washington the biggest problem is Dan Snyder, meaning there is no hope really. Depressed about the Steelers? Come down here for a couple of days. You'll feel a lot better.

Second, there really are a lot of optimistic signs and trends going on in spite of it all. Yes, we are falling short of the 'standard' (Boy, I'm getting really annoyed with how this term is being abused. It borders on childish). The team is a few bricks shy of a load (to revive a 70's slogan), there is the financial logic of the league that pretty much guarantees that the team will be forced to part ways with some players that they would rather keep, there are growth and development issues facing Tomlin and his staff as they move through uncharted territory. Cliff harris is a still a punk! does a great job in laying out some of the challenges facing the team as the season winds down. But you really would have to be clinically depressed to not see the bright spots that can't be hidden by a sketchy record. PaVaSteeler also weighs in on what he views as the Steelers being at a crossroads.

Crossroads?

I don't dispute the arguments made by chisasap and PaVa, though I do wonder how trends around the league fit into their analysis. For example, there have been a number of other teams that have either fallen (or risen) as far or further than the Steelers (Texans, Falcons, Panthers, Skins, Giants, Packers). Might there be contributing factors that speak to structural issues in the league as opposed to team dynamics alone. Also is it possible that things could change dramatically for better or worse in just one season?

Heyward and Worilds

You would be happy if these two just maintained a certain high level of play, but the indications are that neither has peaked yet. You know the financials are crazy when you have to entertain a conversation that includes the possibility that Worilds may walk. There is no ambiguity that these two have become beasts, and it clearly changes the conversation about everything from the competence of the front office to the future viability of the defense. The best indication of how much of a game changer this is; serious conversation about LaMarr Woodley being expendable.

Adams and Beachum

controversy is brewing as to which one of these should be starting at left tackle this Sunday against the Bengals, and not in a 'race to the bottom' type discussion. It seems that it has taken all of one game for Adams to accomplish some serious rehabilitation of his reputation as he received high marks for his work against Miami. And Beachum has established himself as a serious developing talent. Regardless of the outcome, the fact of having the discussion at all is outrageously good news.

Jones and Wheaton

You would think that the stories of these four players (Adams, Beachum, Heyward and Worilds) would teach us something about being patient and avoiding a rush to judgment. You would, of course, be wrong. There is some conversation about disappointment in the progress so far of Jarvis Jones (some coming from Jones himself). Never mind that he is still in the first year of trying to cope with a defensive scheme that few have mastered in their first go round. Neal Coolong sensibly counsels patience.

The development process seems to be either underestimated or completely eludes the understanding of many. That's a shame because the Steelers team culture is particularly adept at developing players. Do we give enough thought to a player like Worilds who had to transition from one position in college to another in the NFL, got few quality reps playing behind two Pro Bowl caliber players and also had issues related to injuries and the lockout? Some of the same is being played out in a compressed manner with Markus Wheaton whose development has been stalled a bit by injury and the quality play of Brown, Sanders and Cotchery. And Wheaton is better off than Moye and Justin Brown who can't even get hats on game days. To be sure there are enough players who actually are busts, but more often than some care to admit there is the Keenan Lewis' whose light comes on a little later than we might hope for or expect. And I have yet to hear of the coaching staff expressing shock at these breakthroughs.

Rookies (cont.)

What will not likely happen over the last three games is a policy that sits veteran players in favor of giving rookies and other untested players the opportunity to gain 'experience'. This is not to say that opportunities for these players won't be present.

Ben

I don't think anyone is exactly surprised at the fact that Ben is playing well. But it seems that even his teammates are a bit taken aback by how well he has been playing over the last month or so. Being healthy certainly has something to do with it. This also emphasizes what the personnel and development strategy of the team must be in the near term. Being a generational talent (in other words don't delude yourself into thinking that Ben can be easily replaced) the organization cannot afford to squander that talent by engaging in a total rebuild of the team.

As stated earlier, this team needs a few bricks not an entire house in order to be competitive.

More Ben, along with Haley and the offense

Its hard for me to puzzle out what to believe concerning the Ben/Haley relationship. How much is smoke and what is fire is unclear.

One thing is clear, the offense is improving. Some of the reasons are obvious. They don't have to depend upon David Paulson's blocking skills or a center whom they just brought in off the street, and there was no Le 'Veon Bell to spearhead the running attack. A more complex question would be whether the offense succeeds because of Haley or in spite of him. Charlie Batch has some interesting things to say about this, pointing out among other things that the offense is more effective when Ben is running things via the no huddle than when it is dependent on Haley's calls. Further complicating matters is that some are suggesting the possibility that this offense is on the cusp of being one of most potent juggernauts in the league. If so, why all the fuss?

Ben was also named the winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for 2013.

Antonio Brown

No discussion of this year's offense would be complete without some acknowledgement of the outstanding performances being turned in by the Steelers' number one wideout. He is currently closing in on Yancy Thigpen in the record books.

LeBeau

While there is much interesting discussion taking place around the offense, its safe to say that the main area of concern these days is with the defense.

The defensive coordinator mounts a lively defense of his players and system. He disputes the idea that his unit is too old, a position I agree with. Though the secondary might be described as being a little long in the tooth, the front seven is, if anything rather young, with only Larry Foote and Brett Keisel being categorized as being on the far side of the mountain.

On the other hand I don't totally agree with his take on why the quality of tackling has seemed to have gone down league wide. His argument is that the spread offenses and the athletes that play it have put a unique strain on defenses. I don't disagree that might be the case, but I also think that tackling is one of those fundamental skills that (counter-intuitively) requires constant practice (like music scales) in order to remain sharp and competent. With the number of permitted padded practices significantly reduced, devoting but so much time to this skill is a luxury I doubt many, if any, teams can afford.

LeBeau also let it be known that he wasn't going to hang up his whistle this year, perhaps a disappointment to some, but not to me.

Film room

You might be inclined to not want to buy LeBeau's reasoning given the spectacular nature of the defensive failures this week. Paper Champion shows that given the interdependent nature of the Steeler D, one mistake by one player can take down the entire house of cards.

Concussions

This piece uses the Le 'Veon Bell concussion as a launch point for a sharp critique of league efforts to address the issue as well as being highly critical of the Tomlin sideline incident to, deliberately or not, distract us from the more important issues being raised by the penalty that was not called on that play as well as the decision to blow the play dead at the point that the officials did. In addition to some scathing analysis of the NFL and their motives concerning this issue. The author offers one of the better common sense solution for dealing with the concussion issue that I've seen. Of course it will be ignored.

Injuries

Going into Week 15 signs point to a team that is getting healthier as the season winds down.

Draft position

To the draft crowd it will likely be less than an ideal circumstance, but the team is situated to enjoy its best draft position in many years with the possibility of landing in the top ten.

The salary cap

SteelCityRoller is looking ahead to address some of the salary cap issues that the team is likely to face this winter.

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