The state of the Steelers at the three quarters mark of 2013

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

How good or bad things appear to be all depends on where you place the horizon.

The best commentary that can be made on the first half of the 2013 season is that a 3-1 record for the third quarter of the season could be judged as not good enough.

This point of view becomes even more interesting when you consider that the one loss came against your biggest rival, the defending Super Bowl Champions, on their home field, playing with their backs against the wall, you being the one team they want to beat the most in even the most mundane of circumstances, but especially when in elimination mode and after having fallen to you once this year already. And still they only prevailed by the skin of their teeth.

Further, if someone told you that after, going to the Moon for four weeks to get the stench of the Patriots game out of your nostrils, that having gone against, Suh and Farley, and Suggs and Dumervil, and a pretty good defensive crew from Cleveland that Ben would be sacked, uh, once. And not hit or hurried that much, and besides he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month of November, you would think what?

In fact, let's play with this coming back from the Moon scenario for a bit more. You've come back and you wander into one of the comments areas of BTSC, and you see this..

"Losing to the Ravens really hurt our playoff chances."

Playoffs ?!!!

"You know we could still make the playoffs if we go 3-1 in December."

PLAYOFFS!!!!!!

"Maybe we should let LaMarr Woodley go so we can keep Jason Worilds."

What!!!!

"Kelvin Beachum really shut down Terrell Suggs."

[Faints]

"Velasco's on IR"

[Loses consciousness again]

"Tomlin wandered on to the field of play. He ought to be fired."

Huh?

Amazing how much can change in four weeks. So what is, in fact, the state of this team as of December 2013?

Coaching and management

How you view this, and all the other categories covered here will depend upon where you decide to focus your gaze. If you are of the 'What-have-you-done-for-me-lately,-playoffs-or-abject-failure' line of thinking then your mouth is full of ashes, and the incompetence of Steelers management is more or less unforgivable. Expand the vision, not just in terms of the long view, how other teams in similar circumstances are handling things, as well as larger league trends then Steeler leadership doesn't look quite so dumb.

Did you see Green Bay on Thursday? Have you been following the progress of Houston, Atlanta, Washington? All playoff teams from last year who are in total free fall. This is precisely the thing that some of us have actually been hoping to happen to the Steelers. They certainly had enough excuses to do so; injuries, bad play, they didn't even make the playoffs last year. Yet here they are. They show up each and every week. They play until their bodies fail them and their hearts break. They have not quit on themselves or their fans, though many of us want nothing more than to quit on them. Why bother? Because they are still in the hunt for the playoffs. They were not eliminated in London, they were not eliminated in New England, they were not eliminated in Baltimore. There is leadership at work here if you can see it. Championships are not just about talent, schemes, good luck and good health. It is also about a particular frame of mind that in many ways can only be cultivated in adversity. If you think about it, the Steelers have done some of their best work precisely when things weren't going so well (1974, 1976, 2005, 2008, 2010).

If you take the long view, this is where the young players will transition from being just promising talent to champions. The harvest probably won't be realized this year, but unless patience is lost, and for some that has already occurred, the harvest will be realized, and the clueless won't understand how it happened. If these things were easy everyone would be doing it. Credit for this goes to Tomlin and his staff, as well as the veteran leadership such as Ben, Clark, Keisel, Ike, Troy and others, almost all of whom have been castigated and dismissed at one time or the other.

You will be able to find flaws and failures with the product on the field if you are looking for them. But given the meltdown that they experienced in the second half of the Patriots game (and the second quarter against the Lions), LeBeau's defense has bounced back nicely. Nitpick Haley's offense if you like but how often do you score three offensive touchdowns against the Ravens defense, just to give one example. Special teams have shown some cracks here and there (including the play that has resulted in all this drama over Tomlin), but the bottom line is that there has not been one game this season where the team was out of contention entering the fourth quarter.

The acquisition of Fernando Velasco. The re-acquisition of Will Allen. The contributions of William Gay and David Johnson (before injury). The emergence of Cam Heyward, Jason Worilds, Emmanuel Sanders and Ziggy Hood. The maturation of David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Kelvin Beachum, Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. The remarkable play of Antonio Brown and the leadership of Ramon Foster. Together it paints a picture of a front office that is not quite as broken as some might imagine. Though its greatest challenge of this season may well be in front of it as it must provide the chicken wire and bubble gum required to hold together what is left of the offensive line.

Tomlin

I think the time has come to face this head on. The motivations and meaning of what occurred on the Steeler sideline is less important than the revealed truth that is now too obvious to ignore any longer. And my thanks to Rebecca Rollett and the Post Gazette's Ron Cook for calling it out. The Nation is split into pro and anti Tomlin factions. Now there are always legitimate football reasons to favor a coach or not, and you can be certain that everyone in the anti crowd will insist that to be the sole motivation for their position. And no doubt that for many it will be no more complicated than that. But it takes a certain suspension of belief to completely buy into this notion. Even the anti-Tomlins understood this. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to suggest that a coach who never had so much as a losing record in one season is incompetent. So, you nibble at the edges, magnifying shortcomings and marginalizing successes, becoming embolden when the team went .500 and bursting out of the closet with this incident.

Reasons for being anti (beyond any legitimate football concern)? Maybe you favored Grimm or Whisenhunt, and still do. Perhaps you operate on the mistaken notion that the Vince Lombardis and Bear Bryants grow on trees or think the NFL is the Big Ten or the SEC and that we should have had seven or eight or ten Lombardis by now. You don't like his 'style'. You get annoyed with blacks in positions of leadership. You are a product of the fantasy football culture where all problems are solved by cutting, trading and drafting, preferably as quickly as possible.

All of this needs to be brought out here because the issue is certain to color the remainder of this season and beyond. It will continue because the fine was appropriate but the loss of draft picks if that comes to pass will be viewed, rightfully, as excessive, an overreaction that will, again raise suspicions that the league never fails to do things, right or wrong for the wrong reasons. It will continue to generate controversy and like the Ben trade rumors, hits on websites, lots of heat but little or no light. It will continue because some within the anti crowd will want to press what they see as an advantage. This is what we would call a distraction and it will be interesting how it impacts the team, if at all.

Offense

Quarterback. I'm trying to think of when was the last time that we have gotten this far into the season without Ben being sidelined, at least briefly, by injury or some other factor. Maybe 2007 and his rookie year in '04. It has not been his best year. If it were, the Steelers would probably be in the drivers seat for a playoff spot, in spite of it all. As it is if he stays healthy throughout the fourth quarter of the season then the Steelers still have a shot, slim as it may be. Let us not forget that it was precisely this outcome that was considered one of the major goals of the Haley offense. Given all the things that have gone wrong with this team this season, the fact that they retain a sliver of relevance speaks to the significance of Roethlisberger as a force. Isn't it nice that Gradkowski has not been a topic of discussion on game days and Landry Jone's name hasn't come up since the preseason?

Offensive line. Easily both the best and the worst news of the third quarter. Even the avalanche of injuries cannot obscure the improvement of this unit. Unfortunately, there isn't one starter who isn't struggling with an injury of some kind. The team is down to its third center and could be playing people this week and beyond who most of us have never heard of. All this makes what they accomplished all the more gaudy. They are showing enough that it no longer requires a leap of faith to see and understand the positive potential of this group.

David DeCastro is attracting legitimate talk about the Pro Bowl, and you get the sense that when the subject of team leaders comes up in a few years that DeCastro will be front and center in those types of conversations. Perhaps the biggest compliment that has been accorded to Maurice Gilbert is that he has not been a topic of conversation. If that line has had any problems it has not come from the right side for the most part. And, yes Kelvin Beachum did effectively neutralize Suggs in the passing game. Beachum develops and improves right in front of our eyes. This raises the question of whether you continue with him in the role of the Sixth-Jack-Of -All-Trades-Man role. Or might he become so good that he becomes an invaluable asset occupying one of the starting positions. Its still too early to tell about Mike Adams.

We do know this; the O line is nowhere near its peak either as individuals or as a collective. They are finally showing enough that those who have been counseling patience and optimism are finally beginning to be vindicated. What remains is the need for some time and good fortune concerning injuries. The more immediate question concerns whether they can continue to keep Ben relatively clean with whomever is left, this week and beyond.

Running backs. Even though the running game has struggled, its hard to put the blame on the backs. Though his resume is woefully short at the moment, I believe we are all getting quite comfortable with the idea of Le'Veon Bell being the featured back in this offense unless and until something better comes along. Bell locked himself into the hearts of the Pittsburgh fanbase with his performance at Baltimore. A 43 yard scamper showed that he is capable of the big run. But it getting knocked out (literally) on the goal line that sealed the deal. He will be given every opportunity by the Nation to establish himself and I don't believe he will disappoint. Normally I would be inclined to say that we should be able to clearly see that improvement as the season winds down, but the state of the offensive line is such that his performance may appear to be worse going forward.

The other two backs, Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer have both been serviceable, with an explanation. Neither seems the type who is a threat to take the ball to the house from anywhere on the field or show the versatility or consistency to realistically challenge for the feature role. But my main fear about Jones, that he might be a turnover machine, has not materialized. Dwyer has shown a level of desire and enthusiasm that I am sure would have spared him the humiliation of being waived if it had been on display earlier in his career. It seems to my eyes that he is becoming a fan favorite precisely because he is now clearly playing the game so hard.

With three of the remaining games at Heinz Field, it would be nice and maybe necessary to get something out of this trio of backs to help move the ball in what could be pretty bad weather, to take pressure off the Ben and the passing game. But, again, given the state of the line, whether they succeed or not may not have anything to do with their talent, resourcefulness or want to.

Tight ends. Heath is doing much better now, thank you very much. The most interesting story here may be that of Matt Spaeth. With the O line thinned out and stressed, the inclusion of his size and blocking ability would be quite welcome right about now, don't you think?

Wide receivers. This group, in combination with Ben, can only be stopped by themselves through misfires and the occasional drop. They can't be covered, not all of them at the same time. Do you think there will be many who will be overwhelmed by regret when Mike Wallace shows up this week? Wallace may be a good object lesson in understanding that receivers are sometimes made as much by the quarterback they are in partnership with in addition to their own skills. How much does it matter, really, who Ben or Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is throwing to? If they can run a route and catch at all they have a shot at having a good day. Nonetheless, lets take nothing away from Brown, Sanders, Cotchery, Wheaton and Moye. They've all had their stumbles but they have delivered more often than not. Unlike the running backs these guys are capable of scoring from anywhere at anytime. And Brown is the one player that we know if he remains injury free is Pro Bowl bound.

Say what you want about Haley, the offense is playing well enough if they get any help at all from defense and special teams, which is to say if these two groups don't give up too many cheap scores. Yes, they go through spells of unimaginative play calling and they still leave too much on the table in terms of scoring opportunities, but they created many of those opportunities themselves, with three and outs being a rarer occurrence. What the success of the no huddle tells me is that, especially with a franchise caliber quarterback, he may be the best judge of what to call on the field from moment to moment.

Defense

Defensive line. What we are learning thus far this season is, though serviceable, Steve McLendon is no Casey Hampton, but then again, who would be. On the other hand Cam Heyward could very well be the next incarnation of Aaron Smith. At the very least he's nowhere near being the bum that some feared me might be coming into the season. I would think he would be legitimately in the running for team MVP. No one on this unit is playing badly, but Brett Keisel's injury issues does not bode well given not only Heyward's emergence, but a solid season so far for Ziggy Hood. Al Woods is now demonstrating that he wasn't just a preseason wonder. Trying not to get to far ahead of ourselves here, but it would seem that this group is making a successful transition to a younger generation of players.

Linebackers. Sometimes the better case scenario comes true. Who would have thought that Jason Worilds would be playing the best ball at this point of the season? There is some concern about Woodley, who had been playing well this season, but who is once again sidelined for an extended period because of an injury. Jarvis Jones is dealing with his learning curve. With one not healthy and another not ready, Worilds has been a pleasant development that allows us to close the book on the Harrison era with the confidence that regardless of the business decisions and developmental issues that lie ahead, the tradition of quality outside linebackers is certain to continue for the foreseeable future.

Timmons is having a good year, but I'm left with the impression that it would have been so much better if he had not been left to compensate for the loss of Larry Foote. That loss I believe has had an adverse effect not only on Timmon's game but on Troy Polamalu's as well, with cascading effects throughout the defense. Not enough has been made, I believe about the fact that two opening game injuries, Foote's and Maurkice Pouncey were exactly the hits that this team could not afford to take, because of how thin and fragile the respective units were to begin with.

Secondary. It is now Ike Taylor's turn to play the role of the washed up scapegoat. I've given up trying to understand why, but it seems that many just can't sleep at night unless there is one person on the roster who they can defile and blame for all that ails the team. This may be the hardest group to get a handle on. All too often they give up these huge plays and cheap scores. But they don't stink on a consistent basis. The best play is likely coming from William Gay who is playing where Keenan Lewis would be if he was still with the team. They did do a good job of generating turnovers during the third quarter of the season. Playing at home for the most part and maybe being spared having to face Aaron Rodgers they could replicate this over the last four games.

Special teams

Suisham had another burp who some will say cost us a game. I say that if it comes down to Suisham we're in trouble regardless. I'm not crazy about the punting game (I still don't understand why they got rid of Drew Butler given what has transpired). But generally special teams has not been the source of much heartburn, for which I am grateful.

How do you measure the progress of a program? If they win out and manage to get into the playoffs does that mean optimum progress. Conversely, given the injury and developmental situations, how do you evaluate coming up short? Seems to me that we will finish this season with the answer to a lot of questions as to who will form the foundation of the next great Steelers team; a combination of rising young talent and veterans who still have a few years left in the tank. They will have been tested and strengthened by a difficult journey, will know who their friends are and aren't among the Nation, and the Steelers will build from there. That is what I'll be looking for over the next month.

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