Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The mystery of the Steelers 2013 season continues. Will they win or lose? Regardless will the day be uplifting, frustrating or humiliating?

It's all rather intriguing if you take things in the right spirit. But that might be expecting too much, wouldn't it?

It's been a somewhat disorienting two weeks for yours truly. I dropped off the face of the earth right about the time that the Pats collapsed from exhaustion after beating Pittsburgh's brains out in New England in order to organize and run a retreat. A confession: I wasn't all that distraught over missing the postmortem for that one. I didn't reemerge until the following Sunday. (I didn't know if the Steelers won the game against the Bills until that night, and I was so fried I really didn't care). Since then I've felt like someone who has jumped off a moving train and has been chasing it trying to get back on. For me, the Checkdown this week is about getting grounded again to the narrative and rhythm of the season. Being away has also provided me with a bit of detachment about the state of Steelers Nation in 2013. I'll share some of my thoughts in that regard later on.

For now this week's top story may well be whether after chasing Calvin Johnson around this Sunday Ike Taylor's new nickname may be 'Toast'.

Ike Taylor

The Steelers cornerback may well be one of the most under appreciated talents in the league. Can he help it if he has stone ping pong paddles where his hands ought to be? The lack of resulting splash plays obscures the fact that week after week Taylor usually goes straight up against the best receivers the opposition has to offer and usually seriously retards their production. The challenge this week appears particularly daunting as Megatron is being touted by some as the best player in the league. Its possible that the outcome of this one match up could be the difference between victory and defeat.

A test of toughness

I find it significant that Emmanuel Sanders had to assert that the Steelers would not allow themselves to be 'bullied' by the Lions defense. The expectation has usually been that it is the other team that has to worry about not being intimidated or physically manhandled. An opponent could only, at best, hope for a draw in this regard. One comes away with the impression that, at least in terms of the match up between the Steeler offensive line and the Lions defensive front that Pittsburgh may be at a disadvantage. The test for the O line may well come on two levels, particularly if Ramon Foster is absent. First is whether they can prevent being overwhelmed physically by Suh and Company. Second, can they keep from being out toughed and punked by Detroit. There is some history of Pittsburgh being somewhat talent deficient at times, less common is when they are the less violent team. That would constitute a real departure from tradition.

Injuries

There's nothing exactly earth shattering about the injury report this week except for the frustration of the injury bug seeming to always find its way to the that part of the team that is least able to withstand this type of misfortune; the offensive line. If you have been paying attention and patient you will notice that this group is getting better. The right side (Gilbert and DeCastro) is playing consistently well, Velasco has given much more than might reasonably be expected replacing Pouncey at center. Beachum may be a little over his head having to man the crucial left tackle position, but what would you expect, really? Adams would seem to be moving in the right direction in his limited role. The problem is they need some stability in order to learn to work effectively together, something that is being denied them as they continuously are brought low by small cuts. Foster in particular seems beset by a series of injuries that have to impact his effectiveness. They are not good enough so far to be forced to play musical chairs. With Foster likely out as of this writing and others being limited in practice due to nagging afflictions, should anyone be surprised if they struggle this Sunday against a very good defensive front?

The problems aren't restricted to one side of the ball. Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas is out with a high ankle sprain, and LaMarr Woodley may also miss with a calf injury. It has become the 'in' thing to do to come down on Steeler leadership for for the team's difficulties this year (I'll speak to that soon), but can you at least give Steeler management credit for bringing back Will Allen? Depth at safety was a concern during the off season given the loss of Allen and Ryan Mundy in free agency and questions about Troy Polamalu's health and durability.

Brett Keisel has been the Foster of the defense, seemingly nicked every week, but so far able to bounce back time and again.

Ben

The quarterback is at the center of a story concerning trade demands and whether the team is looking to unload him after the season. And then there is the now stale rehashing of his ongoing relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. I don't know what to say about this, but my sense is the less said the better. I'm partial to what Benstonium has to say on the matter.

Positive developments

Hard as it is to believe all is not doom, gloom and incompetence. In their weekly coordinators press conferences Haley and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau lifted up a few players who are playing well and/or improving as the season progresses.

Whether being fired was the motivation or the light came on earlier and no one happened to notice it is clear that Jonathan Dwyer is on fire. While no one is disputing that Le'Veon Bell is the future as far as the feature running back position is concerned, at present Dwyer may well be the best back on the field. And he is not just a stand out when carrying the ball, but also as a blocker and on special teams. If he can sustain this effort would anyone have any real complaints about a group consisting of an improving Bell, Dwyer, a healthy Stephens-Hollings and Will Johnson?

Jerricho Cotchery has been solid this season and outstanding over the past two games. As teams have sought to blunt the effectiveness of tight end Heath Miller, it would appear that Cotchery has been the beneficiary. Richard Mann's receivers corps remains the strong suit in the Steelers offense as opponents will continually be forced to pick their poison, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that however they choose they are going to pay.

Remaining on the subject of receivers it has been pointed out that though Calvin Johnson is an extraordinary talent, the most productive receiver in the league will be on the turf of Heinz Field on Sunday, but it will not be Megatron. Antonio Brown continues his scorching pace of receptions, augmented by superior effort in special teams duty as well. Given the fact that he is contacting the struggling Mike Wallace, encouraging him to keep his chin up, how incompetent is the Steelers front office in signing Brown to a multi-year deal while letting Wallace walk?

Paper Champions in his film room piece this week reinforces the notion that things are looking up with an offensive line that acquitted itself well against a well regarded Buffalo defensive front. Mike Adams in particular got quality grades from Pro Football Focus for his efforts (along with Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor).

Rookies Vince Williams and Jarvis Jones, asked to grow up in the Steelers defense at a much faster pace than what has normally been the case would appear to be getting there. Jones will have to step up big if Woodley is unable to go against the Lions, but the more impressive case would be that of Williams. No one was expecting anything from him this year, and he arguably has the more complex challenge in mastering the inside linebacker position that belonged to Larry Foote.

Are you sure we're talking about a team in serious decline?

Incognito

This was one of the few things I did hear about while I was away. The piece at SI.com, MMQB could be intriguing to Steelers fans because Kordell Stewart is quoted extensively giving his take on this development.This also brings into greater focus the character concerns that Rebecca Rollett continues to highlight in her series. And, of course, you have to believe that Mike Wallace must have to constantly remind himself how much money he's making to get through the day.

One man's observation on the state of the Nation

At approximately the same time as kickoff for the game against the Bills I was standing in front of a group of about fifty speaking about some of the challenges involved with building and maintaining community and relationships. Football was not a part of my consciousness. It would be another eight hours while sitting in a restaurant at dinner when I discovered who won the game. It would be another couple of days before I got around to seeing a replay. I was somewhat disoriented and it took me some time to figure out what the community was concerned about. I realized that I hadn't been disconnected from the game for this long in quite some time (electronic devices, phones, etc were forbidden at the retreat). The upside for me is that I am looking at things with somewhat fresh eyes. Will probably step on so toes here, but someone needs to say it.

Adversity often reveals character. And here I'm not talking about the character of the team, it really is too early to make a definitive determination in that regard. What is becoming increasingly transparent is the character of Steeler Nation and the media culture, and for many the picture isn't pretty.

Some things are becoming painfully clear about some (many), but not all or even the majority of Steeler Nation. You're spoiled, which is to say that you have a really peculiar sense of entitlement. Add to that myopia, a real lack of perspective. Many of you have either heard this or expressed this yourself, but here's the part that's going to sting. While Steeler Nation is pretty much universally very serious and passionate about their football, that does not extend in all cases in terms of actually being knowledgeable about the game. Obviously (to use one of Tomlin's favorite terms) an allegation this serious and potentially insulting has to be developed some, and that's coming. But first let's tease out the entitlement issue to create a better sense of context.

We are currently three years shy of the half century mark of the Super Bowl era of professional football. During that time Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville have yet to make to a Super Bowl. Buffalo, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Carolina, Atlanta, Tennessee, San Diego, Arizona and Seattle have never won a Lombardi. The last time that the New York Jets won the Super Bowl Lyndon Johnson was President. For Kansas City and Miami Richard Nixon was in the White House. For Oakland it was Ronald Reagan (his first term), for Washington it was George Bush, George H. W. Bush that is. And for those who would like to point to New England as role models, remember that the last time they actually hoisted a Lombardi was in George W Bush's first term.

By contrast, Pittsburgh has made three Super Bowl appearances since that last Patriot championship. That matches or exceeds the franchise totals for the Eagles, Jets, Browns, Bengals, Ravens, Lions, Bears, Panthers, Falcons, Buccaneers, Saints, Jaguars, Titans, Texans, Colts, Chiefs, Chargers, Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks. Their two victories matched or exceeded those for the franchises mentioned, plus the Broncos, Dolphins and Vikings; just under three quarters of the league. They have not had a losing season in a decade, and only three over the last twenty years. The team is currently at 3-6, meaning among other things, that a losing season is not yet assured. Even a playoff berth is not off the table yet. However, many are distraught, insistent that the players lack talent, that management are incompetent imposters who must be removed at the earliest convenience and that the franchise needs to be restructured completely, and that all is basically lost until we get a run of top three draft choices which will be the case because we are about to become Jacksonville. This is what 'spoiled' looks like (which is kinder than, say, stupid).

This brings me back to the 'knowledgeable' issue. How dare I say that? Let me address just one aspect of this. I'm not speaking here about your grasp of statistics, whether or not you ever played the game or coached it at Pop Warner, high school or college, how much sports media you consume (talk about the blind leading the blind). I'm talking about a characteristic that I believe makes Rebecca Rollett one of the most knowledgeable individuals on this site, and that is having an awareness of what you DON'T know. In this sense women may have an advantage given the fact that men have to carry the burden of feeling that their manhood may be on the line based upon their sports knowledge. I have a friend (not a Steelers fan) who calls me at regular intervals to talk about the season. He then basically regurgitates whatever he saw on ESPN. He's boring, and he's wrong a lot.

So for the sake of brevity let's see how being knowledge deficient plays out in terms of the subject of Mike Tomlin's performance as head coach. Right now the book on Tomlin is that anything wrong with this team is his fault and anything right involves him being the undeserving beneficiary of someone else's work. One of the current specific accusations is that the team is inadequately prepared to play the games. True? I don't know. But please explain something to me. If you recall what impressed the Rooney family when Tomlin interviewed for the job was the depth and breath of his preparation. You may also recall in the America's Game program profiling the 2008 Steelers, Troy Polamalu points out that much of the good that occurred during James Harrison's interception run for a touchdown had come as a result of preparation made in practice by Tomlin. So the question is; when and why did he (and the rest of his coaching staff) fall off the wagon? Maybe the issue here is one of style. Bill Nunn felt that one reason why it took Tony Dungy so long to land a head coaching job was the perception that he wasn't tough enough to motivate and control his players. a lot of fans have come to believe that of the three Steelers coaches of the Super Bowl era, Bill Cowher was the greater disciplinarian based upon his outward demeanor during games. In fact, the truth may be that he was the most lenient of the three.

And what about the calls to fire Tomlin (or Colbert, or LeBeau, or Haley). My question is if you don't know exactly what the division of labor is among management how do you know who to fire? Don't let the Emperor Chaz talk fool you. No Steeler coach has had full autonomy. So, if you're not happy with the draft choice made recently and if Dan and Art II have as much input into who is drafted as Colbert, what does firing Colbert accomplish other than providing the satisfaction of punishment for someone's sense of disappointment over being let down by the team? Its really not going to solve anything.

How can you tell the fans who aren't knowledgeable? Easy. They're the ones doing all the chirping; in bars, on line. They're the ones who know what the problem is and the solution(s). Everybody else (the majority of Steeler Nation) know its just too early to be drawing conclusions. They're not happy with what they're seeing but its a bit premature to be talking about who you would be throwing under the bus. The arrogant ones on the other hand are completely certain of their facts. Kinda makes you hope the Steelers somehow make the playoffs just to hear what their b.s. rationalization will be. I'm betting on 'the jury is still out'.

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