Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Harry Engels

Steelers hope a change of country is the path to the win column in the Checkdown

They say that when things aren't going well a change of scenery can help. An ocean and six time zones might be a bit drastic, but hopefully it will be just the tonic for the 0-3 Steelers to begin to turn around their season. I say hopefully because that's a long way to go just to lose. Seeing that the 0-3 Vikings are exactly in the same boat this could be one of the more fiercely contested games you'll see at this stage of the season.

A couple of things about the current circumstances lightens the mood headed into this game. The first is the shift in my consciousness as it relates to expectations. Until this past Sunday I think I was trying to hold on to the construct that the Steelers were this aging juggernaut trying to reclaim its position at the top of the NFL mountain in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.

We now see a team that falls more in the category of a young, scrappy underdog that shows potential of being good somewhere down the line. As such, I've found that I have rediscovered my sense of humor. One piece of good fortune is that I live in Redskins country, meaning that as much as they would like to revel in our sorrows they may actually be in worse shape than Steelers Nation. At least we have hope. There is also one thing that Steelers and Skins fans agree upon; things could be worse, we could be Giants fans.

London

Three things serve to lift the spirit as we head into Week four. First there is London. Putting the Steelers on an international stage is a sure winner, regardless of the record, for everyone involved. No matter how much you want to downplay this as a 'business trip', or meditate on the grim possibility of going 0-4, it still comes off as being giddy and pretty festive. Ike Taylor, international media star is just fun. The Big Ben allusions that I am certain that we will hear to the point of nausea over the next few days. Does anyone believe that the European province of Steeler Nation won't be representing on Sunday? You could be a Killjoy and obsess about our playoff prospects (Cue Jim Mora: "Playoffs!"). But c'mon. They'll be two weeks to worry about the outcome, let's just enjoy the moment. (And please, please, please, please, please, PLEASE, don't let us go into the Bye week 0-4. Steeler Nation would be insufferable. My head hurts just thinking about it).

Injuries

Shhh! This would be the second thing. Forgive me for mentioning this, as the superstitious among us understand without further explanation, since our little Red Wedding episode on Week One, all has been pretty quiet on the injury front. Last week we welcomed back Heath Miller, who gingerly, but effectively reinserted himself into the scheme of things. Le'Veon Bell and Cortez Allen return this week meaning we enter the fray on Sunday as close to being fully loaded as we have in quite some time.

Progress

The way that the Week One loss unfolded was particularly disorienting for Steelers fans. The injuries and losing to an opponent that I believe most assumed would be a 'W' knocked us off our pins somewhat. Then suffering two additional losses would not be the preferred outcome, but you'll notice that though we spoke about panic last week that the outlook has brightened a bit despite our state of embarrassment as far as the position in the standings go. But its worth asking at this point whether the narrative that many assumed would play out this season, specifically, that the team would struggle early and then right the ship and be competitive as the season progressed is still valid. To be sure, most of us had a much more benign version of 'struggle' in mind and a more promising won/loss record as well. But to all, save the most pessimistic of sourpusses, it is fairly obvious that this team is showing signs of significant improvement.

Mike Tomlin's press conference this week was noteworthy for both its content, but also its tone. No anger or frustration. A feeling of a group that appears on the verge of a breakthrough. You get the feeling that if the Steelers could go into the Bye with a win, then they would be on their way to something respectable, maybe even highly competitive. (But please, please, etc. not 0-4. Not for two weeks).

Tight ends

Heath Miller coming back made a difference for sure. But it wasn't just Heath at this position that made a splash. David Johnson, who is also recovering from a knee injury made a significant impact in the offense as both a blocker and a receiver. I like David Paulson, but his, and this teams prospects look a lot sunnier when he is the number three tight end as opposed to being number one.

Bell and Allen

The much awaited, much delayed debut of second round draft pick Le'Veon Bell appears to finally be at hand. There appears to be no hesitation in inserting him into the starting lineup in spite of a strong performance by Jonathan Dwyer against the Bears. As was the case last week with Miller, we are anxious to see if he can rise to, or even exceed, the performance levels of fellow rookies Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas in his first outing, or will it take more time for him to acclimate himself to the game at this level. For an offense that showed definite signs of shaking out of its doldrums, a spark from the running game could have positive ramifications throughout the entire team.

Less noted is the return of Cortez Allen to a defensive secondary that acquitted itself well in his absence. With the most formidable offense threat they will have faced thus far this season in the form of Adrian Petersen it will be comforting to have all hands on deck with the defense.

Ben

What to make of Ben Roethlisberger? PaVaSteeler points out the pertinent questions. It is currently unclear where Ben stands as a leader both on and off the field. His play has been erratic and his role as a vocal leader off the field is in transition. Ben has been subjected to scrutiny concerning his physical skills, his criticism of Le'Veon Bell, his exhortation to the offensive line and generally where he fits in the molding of a young team trying to find its way.

Offensive line

Besides the general state of the team, the offensive line remains topic 'A' for many fans. Folks have been harsh with tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert, but the extent to which that criticism is accurate, and determinant is in some dispute. It was assumed by many that the insertion of Kelvin Beachum at both tackle positions during the course of the game was indicative of extreme displeasure with the play of Adams and Gilbert. But the only thing that is clear is that the development of and stock in Beachum continues to rise at a pace where it now appears it is more difficult to keep him off the field, particularly while the unit slowly finds its bearings. Steel34D once again encourages us to view Gilbert's work through a different lens. Neither Todd Haley or Tomlin seem to be as bent out of shape as many of the fans. One of the starters will have to be concerned about losing their job to the hard charging Beachum, but that is a different concern than what has been expressed by some. DeCastro also comes in for some analysis, as does the general effort of the team

Ramon Foster has taken on the leadership mantle for the unit in the absence of Maurkice Pouncey. There have been no major hiccups with Velasco at center. One would only assume and hope that the play there will continue to improve over the coming weeks.

Vince Williams

Another player whose stock has been rising of late is the rookie inside linebacker. Though he has not separated from Kion Wilson, it seems that things are trending in the direction of a inside tandem of Florida State alums in Williams and Lawrence Timmons. Williams is getting good marks on his ability to handle the mental aspects of his position and his physicality. Its hard not to imagine that the play from that position will be much improved as the season progresses.

Haley and LeBeau

The coordinator interviews with Haley and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau were particularly insightful (and curiously shorter) this week. Haley talks about the O line situation, the addition of Bell to the mix and the general positive development of the offense, minus turnovers. For LeBeau and the defense its containing Petersen and finding a way to generate turnovers.

Special Teams

Lost in the funk of an 0-3 start, has been the solid and generally impressive work of special teams. Tomlin made particular mention of Danny Smith's group keeping dangerous return man Devin Hester a non factor this past Sunday. Credit should be given for the turnaround experienced since preseason.

Antonio Brown and Troy Polamalu

These two have received top grades from Pro Football Focus for their efforts this past Sunday. Short of injury I think we can put to rest any talk of Troy having lost anything significant in his game. And I think for most in Steeler Nation when I say in reference to Brown, give him the damn ball.

Old school defense

Playing in the defensive secondary in the NFL has become more challenging than ever. The league is trying to address player safety concerns (and avoid more lawsuits) and a lot of the weight of trying to make that happen is coming at the expense of the freedom of defensive backs to operate. On hand for Alumni weekend was head hunting safety Donnie Shell, and cornerback Mel Blount whose style of play was so disruptive that the league legislated against it in an effort to give offenses a boost. What did these two have to say about the changes going on in the league. Unsurprisingly, they preferred the way it was done in the old days, but some of their remarks may catch you off guard.

Taking away their toys

In a move that most parents will recognize, the Steelers veterans took away the younger team members playing privileges until their grades improve. Until, presumably, the team stops getting 'Fs' on its report cards the young guys will be expected to spend more time with their playbooks, weights and other job related activities instead of playing pool, ping pong and god knows what else when they are in the facility. Somehow you get the impression that this edict would be more effective if James Harrison or Joey Porter were still around.

Bechta

Haven't heard from the sports agent in a few weeks but he addressed two issues that have been subjects of discussion around here lately. One is the development of a two tiered system of players as a result of the new CBA. The model that appears to be developing league wide and looks to be recognizable with the Steelers is that a handful of stars will receive the lion's share of salary money on one tier, while the bulk of the team will be filled with draftees and undrafted free agents. Competent veterans who don't quite rise to the status of stars are disappearing. Bechta believes, and I concur that this will have a detrimental effect on the quality of the product.

He also has a different and interesting take on the injury situation. He confirms via anecdote that injuries are spiking around the league. He believes the cause is that players are involved with taking more reps in both games and practice. The practice piece definitely seems counter-intuitive given the reduction in practice time based upon the CBA, but Bechta contends that teams have countered by becoming much more efficient in the number of plays that they run in their practices. Perhaps even more interesting is he cites the spread offense as being the cause in games. Again, more reps, players running greater distances and hitting at a higher rate of speed at more angles.

The international NFL

The Steelers and Vikings participation in London puts them at the center of a discussion about the possibility of the league placing a franchise in London sometime in the future. Andrew Brandt of SI.Com brings us the details.

A small prayer

Just speaking for myself (but I think others on the editorial staff of BTSC and a lot of the community would back me up on this), do we want to go into the Bye at 0-4? I mean, really. Do we want to subject ourselves to that level of self abuse? I can live with the record, living with you guys...  Might as well just convert to cannibalism. So, I say, as much a prayer as an exhortation, Go Steelers!

Listen to The Standard is The Standard pregame show:

The Stanard is The Standard - Episode 4

More from Behind the Steel Curtain:

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