The second quarter of the season has been as different as can be from the first. While most of us have been looking resolutely forward, impatient that one game stubbornly remains valued as only one win, we've already lost sight of how bad it was just a scant two weeks ago, and how awful it still could be. Jacksonville and Tampa remain in competitive hell, still unable to win a game. The Giants finally clawed their way into the win column at the expense of a Vikings team whose victory over the Steelers in London was nothing more than a false dawn. Meanwhile on the ritzier side of town, teams that may have seemed invincible in the first quarter, like the Broncos have fallen back to earth of bit. The Chiefs are undefeated, but c'mon, not exactly invincible.
In our neck of the woods we're actually having meaningful discussions about the playoffs. A long way to go, and not much margin for error, but its far from mere fanciful talk. After a highly entertaining and deeply satisfying win over our evil twin the Ravens, we find an old nemesis in the Oakland Raiders standing in our path. And with it all a narrative is taking shape that defines and provides a rallying point for Steelers Nation; Us Against The World. Everybody has counted us out, nobody loves us, no one respects us. Don't you love this kind of stuff? The Steelers have morphed from bullies to the kid who is finally making a stand and not letting themselves be punked for their lunch money anymore. Good stuff. But that's not this week's top story.
A Michael Bean sighting
If you come to this site fairly regularly and you just asked 'Who is this guy', then you just outed yourself as a newbie. If you come here and like what you see then you have Michael the site's founder to thank. He set the standard in these parts and the regulars here, both staff and community have labored to maintain and honor his vision with, I believe, some quality results. His byline used to be as ubiquitous as Neal Coolong's is now on these pages, but success snatched him away. So, imagine the surprise and delight in seeing that byline again on Thursday, providing a well reasoned account of why betting on the Steelers making the playoffs makes sense. He has to be this week's top story because without him we probably wouldn't all be here together.
We have to spend a moment looking back on a game that, once again, provided much of the best of what a sports rivalry is capable of providing fans. As the Post Gazette's Gene Collier pointed out, maybe the best news was that 37 new players on both teams were initiated into this special relationship this time. From the perspective of the victorious Steelers the experience was challenging and exhilarating. As good and important as the win over the Jets was for this team, this was so much better given both the stakes as well as the manner in which the victory was secured. As you have already heard a dozen different ways, one win cannot of itself salvage a season, but it would be equally wrong to categorize this game as just another win. It was clearly much more.
An apology to Lawrence Timmons
In my postmortem of the game I committed a serious oversight when listing the game's 'winners'. There not one word concerning inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. With his 17 tackles in the Ravens game, LT has been, somewhat quietly performing at an All Pro level according to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. And he accomplished this while playing with a broken hand. At present, with apologies to Troy, Ben, Antonio Brown and others, Timmons might be playing the best football of anyone wearing the black and gold.
One of the puzzling/frustrating stories of preseason and first quarter of 2013 was that of Guy Whimper. He elicited equal parts bewilderment, contempt and fear. Nobody outside of the Steelers brain trust could understand why he was here. From what he showed over the summer he seemed incompetent. He came from a franchise (Jacksonville) that was in terrible shape (and they let him go). He had a name that appeared made up by somebody writing a script for a sitcom; so bad in fact that head coach Mike Tomlin changed it. Then the moment everyone feared arrived. Marcus Gilbert's quad gave way and the next man up was Whimp--, I mean Abdullah. His assignment was to handle Elvis Dumervil. Ha! And then something unusual happened. Dumervil went away. Ben retained the hope of actually seeing his second child. At least for now its looking less like a sitcom and more like one of those inspirational stories where a bunch of losers find their inner Muhammad Ali. We'll see.
More offensive line
Lingering on that 'bunch of losers' theme for a bit longer, Abdullah certainly wasn't the only offensive lineman for whom the light has seemed to come on in the season's seventh week. As many of the cooler heads have been saying for months, this unit would eventually get it and the results would likely be impressive. The O line put on its best performance on Sunday, helping to produce nearly 150 rushing yards, and generally giving Ben and his receivers the time they needed in the passing game. Most hopeful is that this is a group that is still frightfully young with players like DeCastro, Beachum and Adams barely at double digits in terms of starts and veterans like Velasco and Whimper who have not had much time to blend in. It's not unreasonable to assume that, barring injury, there is a tremendous upside with this group that we have yet to see.
He deserves special mention in that now that he is getting some experience under his belt he's beginning to look very much like the special player (the pony for Christmas) that many thrilled about when he fell to Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2012 draft. Comparisons with the likes of Alan Faneca, though still premature, seem more apt now, nonetheless.
The rookie running back and Steelers Digest Player of the Week played a huge role in making that line look good. The majority of the Nation had to trust that those who had watched Bell in training camp and the spring were perceiving correctly about his capabilities and that they would translate effectively to the regular season. We finally got to see what the fuss was all about. And, like the young players on the offensive line, you get the feeling that he may just be a few reps from showing a whole lot more upside. A lot of experienced, sober minded observers were making comparison between Bell and some of the best runners from the past forty years of the franchise; Hall of Fame caliber players. Obviously, we're a long way from any of that manifesting as fact, it speaks volumes that some are speaking in those terms.
Steelers: the next generation
A partial explanation of the how and why that the season has unfolded as it has is that Pittsburgh has employed an unusual (for them) strategy of injecting young talent in important roles, especially defense, where in the past they could afford the luxury of bringing them along more slowly. The adaptation period has been difficult and ugly, but, in spite of complaints that the team had somehow lost its touch in the area of talent procurement and development, youngsters such as DeCastro, Beachum, Thomas, Williams, Jones, and yes, even Adams, are showing signs of coming along. They're learning, perhaps not as fast as some of the attention deficit types in the fan base would like, but I would suggest that totally unrealistic worldview not deter you from seeing that something new and grand is being built in front of our eyes. Jury's still out as to whether they can pull it together quickly enough to salvage this season playoff wise, but you'd have to be pretty dense, frankly, to not see this coming.
In spite of the setbacks suffered during the game with the Jets, overall the injury situation has not been that severe. And, generally speaking the team seems to have the resources to marshall to respond. So, in losing Levi Brown and David Johnson last week, Guy Whimper steps up and the return of Matt Spaeth now appears imminent. Markus Wheaton remains on the shelf for the third game, but Derek Moye has stepped into the gap. Most other injuries are, for the time being, of the nuisance variety (Timmons, for example, will play with his broken hand, Gilbert and Keisel also appear to be playing despite nagging injuries). Considering what's happening in places like Houston, we're getting off pretty easy.
If the season ended today the MVP award would likely go to Suisham who was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Besides his impressive exploits on the field, Rebecca Rollett also provides a nice character profile on the Steelers placekicker.
And speaking of awards, DeCastro and William Gay got the high marks from Pro Football Focus for their performances against the Ravens. Heath Miller has won the Ed Block Courage Award for his comeback from injury.
Another somewhat unusual practice continued this week as the team made some roster moves. Isaac Redman who had been inactive throughout the majority of the season thus far was released. Don't know all the particulars behind this move, but the strong performances of not only Bell, but of Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer most likely sealed his fate, at least for now. Right now the primary beneficiary is Kion Wilson who has returned to the roster.
Part of the fallout of the Redman release is that it changed the salary cap dynamics. Ike Taylor has agreed to a restructuring of his contract as a response.
The film room
One of the joys of this season has been the regular film room features brought to us by Steel34D and Paper Champions.They have never failed to give us a glimpse of the games that usually pass our notice live on game day. The insight also tends to clear away flawed perceptions and brings clarity and focus to what's happening on the field. It never fails to enhance my understanding of the game.
Many are too young to remember when Steelers/Raiders was everything that Steelers/Ravens is and more. Mike Tomlin provided a history lesson for the team and Andy Russell helped us all to remember this week.
I get the feeling that Mike Tomlin is getting into the challenge of getting the team and its individual players to continue to respond effectively to adversity that they are facing on a daily and weekly basis this season. As fascinating as the adaptations have been on the field, what is revealed in interviews of the players and Tomlin himself is that of a man who is sinking his teeth into the motivational and creative challenges of getting and keeping this team competitive.
The Hall of Famer and member of the ownership team added another piece to his resume being name to the Black College Football Hall of Fame this week, joining, among others, Steelers long time scout Bill Nunn.
The Steelers captain spoke to SI's Peter King about the playoff prospects for the team this season.
I pointed out last week that the topic was moving once again to the forefront of our consciousness due in part to the release of a book and a PBS documentary based upon its findings. Its fair to say now that things have exploded on this front. Our own PaVaSteeler produced a thought provoking piece this past Sunday. The crew at SI.com's MMQB came out with a whole series of articles addressing various aspects of the issue, and the Atlantic also weighed in. A consensus is beginning to form that the game will have to change, and perhaps radically over the next few years if it is to survive.