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Depth Perception

So, what good could possibly come from the waking nightmare that we have, once again, lost Aaron Smith for the bulk of the year? Well, two things really.

One of the things that distinguishes this Steelers team from many great teams of the near and more distant past is not just the breath of talent from position to position, but also the incredible depth of talent. One of Tomlin’s core mantra’s is that regardless of who is playing the standards don’t change. The staff has managed to assemble a group that is largely capable of fulfilling this expectation.

The best example of how blessed this team is in that regard is the ongoing competition between rookie wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The first time Brown touches the ball in an NFL game he returns a kickoff for a touchdown. Sanders, on the other hand, was just named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Almost anywhere else both of these guys would be kicking back (a little anyway) celebrating making it to the big time. With the Steelers they are engaged in a brutal weekly game of ‘what have you done for me lately?’ The winner gets a hat and a chance to play in the next game

One of the things that stuck with me about Sunday’s game was how well Larry Foote and Jason Worilds filled in for the absence of Woodley. Woodley, remember, is a Pro Bowl player.  I hadn’t seen much of Worilds and wasn’t sure if we had gotten our money’s worth. The jury’s in, Jason will be just fine, especially with more experience and time to bulk up. Mewelde Moore, one of this year’s top nominees for the James Farrior Veteran We Would Most Like To Kick To The Curb Immediately Award made some crucial plays and demonstrated that he did not become completely useless over night.

Now, how all this relates to Aaron Smith. Will Ziggy Hood make us forget Smith? Of course not. His less than stellar performance so far is most likely due to the fact that he has been nicked (high ankle sprain) in the early going. Timmons and Farrior were similarly injured last year leading to a performance by LT that was less than sparkling and left many fans to conclude that Farrior had hit the end of the road and needed to put out to pasture. A more accurate assessment would be Hood’s performance in training camp. In particular, his beat down of one, Maurkice Pouncey. That represents his potential upside. With some degree of stepping up from his defensive mates the drop off may not be significant enough to negatively impact the effectiveness of the defense.

Not putting Smith on injured reserve signals two things; first, that the injury may not have been as devastating as originally thought. But even more important, like Cowher’s decision on Rod Woodson a decade and a half ago, it reflects a belief at the managerial level that not just a playoff run, but a championship run is a very strong possibility. If so, it means that three months may be enough time for Smith to be able to actually participate in the game (and something for the team to focus upon much in the same way as they focused upon Ben’s return in the early portion of the season). But the important thing being that this is a team that is more than merely hopeful. Unfortunately, many of you reading this may want to throw up. High expectations brings with it the possibility of brutal disappointment if we come up short. Not much comfort I can provide in that regard. Some are struggling mightily to ‘maintain a sense of perspective’. But the reality is staring us in the face. This is a very good team that hasn’t come close to peaking yet. There can’t be too many more catastrophic injuries, there will be the need for luck of the type that we experienced this weekend (or just an absence of bad luck), but otherwise, the opportunity is there. We will spend the rest of the season in a step by step march to see if this will be more like ’08 or ’09.

Also, on a historical note, most if not all of the Steelers seven Super Bowl squads had to overcome significant personnel setbacks in order to prevail.

*The ’74 Steelers had to overcome controversy at quarterback. All three quarterbacks on the roster (Bradshaw, Gilliam and Hanratty) started at least one game. The situation wasn’t resolved until relatively late in the season. Dwight White had to check himself out of a New Orleans hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia in order to play in the championship game. He scored the games first points, and the first safety in Super Bowl history. Linebackers Lambert and Russell went down to injury in the second half but the Steelers prevailed.

*The next year Joe Greene played in spite of a pinched nerve so severe that one arm was essentially useless. Lynn Swann had been concussed so badly that he was considered doubtful for the game. (he would be the game MVP)

*In ’76 after begin the season with four losses in six games and losing Bradshaw for most of the season to a brutal injury at the hands of Joe "Turkey" Jones of the Browns, The Steelers rallied around their defense and two thousand yard rushers (Franco and Rocky Bleier) went on a nine game winning streak and may have won their third straight championship had not both Harris and Bleier been injured in the divisional playoff game, leaving a backfield of Bradshaw  and Frenchy Fuqua to take on the Raiders in the AFC championship game.

*More recently, the team survived the ’05 season with running backs Bettis and Duce Staley unavailable to the team. Ben missed a number of games due to injury. In ’09 Mendenhall was lost early in the season to injury. The point of perspective here is that few teams make it through a season unscathed as far as injuries are concerned. The team will be required to do a better job of compensating for the loss of Smith, it would be hard to imagine a team more capable of doing so.

Comparing Defenses

Complicating our feelings about losing Smith is this low level anxiety that the defense, in spite of all of its early success is slipping somehow. It’s a difficult perception to shake. All the data tells us that ours is the most successful defense in the league, particularly in area that counts the most…scoring. Feelings aside, I believe this to be a great defense. However, there are at least three reasons why I might be deceived into believing otherwise.

Comparing defenses from different eras:  If, like me, you have any memory at all of the ‘70s teams, particularly ’76, then all others will seem wanting. As good as the ’76 defense was it is in the end an unfair comparison. At the end of the day comparing defenses, or anything, from different eras is like comparing apples to oranges. The ’76 group was 4-3 shutdown defense. None of this bend but don’t break nonsense. The expectation was three downs, get off the field. The four down linemen were usually sufficient for the pass rush. Blitzing was rarely needed. Shut outs were not uncommon. There were no specialists. Eleven guys played every down. On the other hand the rules were far more friendly to the defense. The blocking techniques that are routinely used to slow down players like James Harrison were completely illegal. There was no Mel Blount rule as of yet, meaning that defenders could physically harass receivers all over the field.  In certain significant ways it was a different game.

Underestimating our opponents: It was assumed that the Steelers wouldn’t amount to much prior to the return of Ben. So, when we defeated the Falcons and Titans the assumption was that they were some how less than advertised. The Bucs were supposed to be the worst team in the league. The reality is that Atlanta and Tennessee are flying under the radar and playing playoff caliber ball. The Bucs aren’t that far behind. By far the worse team we have played has been the Browns and they have beaten the world champions and pushed the Ravens to the wire. Instead of thinking that we’re having trouble getting off the field against some mediocre teams, what we were really doing was reducing some of the best crews in the league to impotence.

The Steelers have not peaked as a team. Under normal circumstances a team should be rounding into what they are going to be in a given year at about this time – Halloween. That process was delayed by Ben;s suspension. I think the real Steelers show up this week. Which leads us to…

Sunday Night

When previewing the season I, like so many others figured this to be pretty much a guaranteed loss. I don’t think that way anymore. If any team were to be vulnerable to a Super Bowl hangover it would be New Orleans. These first time winners partied into the summer and now the bill comes due. Now all week I have been reading about all the psychological incentives they have to open up a can of WhipAss on us Sunday night. ‘Oh, they lost to the Brownies. How embarrassing! Now they’re going to take it out on us.’ Oh really! Yes I know; Reggie Bush is really good, Drew Brees is the latest coming of Christ and they have Super Bowl rings and a Lombardi. What about our psychological incentives? We use WhipAss by the case, not the can. We just pimp slapped the Browns a week ago, as well as beating the Falcons who also beat the Saints in the Superdome. We have guys that have Super Bowl rings. We have several that have two. We look at six Lombardis every day.

To paraphrase the late Bernie Mac "I ain’t scared of you!" Seriously, if I were Tomlin what a great time for a statement game. The first time we have the undivided attention of the nation, and against the reigning world champs. I may be wrong, but even so it won’t be the end of the world. All I know is that I’d rather be us than them this week.