Back in June I wrote my thoughts on what conditions would have to come together in order for the Steelers to make a championship run. With a division title, a high seed and a valuable break in hand I became curious about how those thoughts, recorded nearly a month before the beginning of training camp, measured up against the reality of an intriguing, successful regular season. I also wanted to take a stab at addressing the issues that might prove critical to making it successfully across the finish line in February.
Injuries. Coping with injuries effectively is a big key to success in the NFL. They can't be avoided. You can only hope that the impact on key personnel is minimal, that there aren't too many season ending injuries in any given year and that the timing of the injuries, when they occur is favorable. For example, better to have major injuries earlier in the year so that a better range of options is available. Of course, some injuries have no upside at all. Losing Troy for most of last season was an example of that.
It seemed within hours of the post that Willie Colon went down to a season ending injury. Because it happened so early in the football year the team was able to secure an adequate replacement in the person of Flozell Adams. Nonetheless, our luck was lousy. The one loss that you would not want to have in the wake of the loss of Colon occurred later in the year when the other starting tackle Max Starks went down, and other members of the line suffered from a series of more minor, but disruptive nicks. The offensive line, under the new management of Coach Kugler and coming tantalizingly close to breaking free of its status of weak link would struggle as a consequence of these losses. The ground game, emerging behind the fine efforts of Rashard Mendenhall would stumble somewhat after Starks went down. When he returned from his suspension, Ben continued to absorb his customary beatings. But because the bulk of the misfortune occurred during the early portion of the year the current effort of the O-line and the future look much more promising.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line was experiencing its own set of troubles. Brett Keisel missed a number of games due to injury, but the real misfortune was the loss of one of those aforementioned key players when Aaron Smith suffered what appeared to be a season ending injury. Smith was, indeed, lost for the remainder of the regular season. But two developments have softened the sting of the loss. The first has been the emergence of Ziggy Hood on the defensive line. The fine training camp and season of this second year first rounder has seemed somewhat muted in the wake of the spectacular rise of this year's first round sensation Maurkice Pouncey. The drop off from Smith to Hood, if there has been one at all, is barely perceptible and of little consequence to the effectiveness of the number one defense in the NFL. The second development is the possible return of Smith for some portion of the post season. It is also important to mention how well Nick Eason has filled in for Keisel. This is significant given the fact that mere days before I wrote the June piece Eason was literally (if quietly) at death's door. Whether he would live let alone ever play football again was a valid concern. Also, let's not forget that Eason had more than his share of haters among Steeler Nation. I, for one, salute him for his efforts this season. He has been a true source of inspiration.
Most other injuries, such as Dennis Dixon's have been survivable because their roles have not been critical and the team has benefited from a great deal of depth. However, the one possible exception moving forward may be how well Kapinos fills in as punter under playoff pressure where one screw up on Special Teams could easily be the difference between cheers and tears.
Moving forward. The one injury that could have a lingering negative effect in the Playoffs is the loss of Starks. Contemplating Jonathan Scott matched up against Terrrell Suggs or Jason Taylor in a possible ACCG matchup could be the source of some heartburn. While he is not my cup of tea at right guard, I believe Trai Essex is the better player at left tackle. Smith coming back would be a bonus. Actually, just having him around struggling to come back is a boost for team morale, similar to Rod Woodson coming back in 1995. The more significant return has been that of Keisel. He covers more space, particularly vertical space than his understudy. He has a knack for blocking passes much like LC Greenwood from the 70s teams. You might remember the very important block in the Divisional Playoff two years ago against the Chargers that led to a interception by Larry Foote. Generally the team is in pretty good shape and can, hopefully remain so throughout the three game tournament. We have barely been scratched when you compare our situation to that of the Jets or Packers.
Distractions. Usually during a season there are a number of incidents involving members of the team. They range from the ‘boys will be boys' type activities such as doing battle with towel dispensers or public urination to more troubling things such as police stops, fights in bars or other public establishments and domestic violence. Tomlin signaled during his first year as head coach that he had a very low opinion of such behavior. And guess what? Yes, Ben did his thing and has been seriously chastised by the league in cooperation with the organization. And yes, Santonio did his thing and was dismissed. And you have to wonder whether Jeff Reed might have been kept around a few more days if he hadn't eroded his good will with his off field antics. But those things aside (and the very strong message communicated by the consequences of these actions) the social and cultural life of the Pittsburgh region has been rather sedate as it relates to the activities of Steelers. No bars or clubs being turned out, no car chases through the streets, no violence involving wives, girl friends or baby momas. Could be a coincidence, could be a lull, but I don't think it's an accident that the only off field news involving the Steelers has to do with ping pong games, visits to schools, hospitals and hanging out with war veterans. This is probably the result of both leadership from management and the players themselves, and may also be a factor in the selection of new players. In other jurisdictions this would have been considered news worthy and the object of much public praise. But because it's the Steelers (for reasons too complex and numerous to go into here, but I will one day) it will either ‘fly under the radar' or be simply ignored, depending upon your point of view. This is not to say that there weren't distractions this season beyond those already mentioned; more about those below. What distractions that the team did have to contend with were for the most part not self-inflicted.
The Chip. I speculated and many in the community agreed that the Steelers played better when they were ticked off by some real or imagined offense committed against them. At the time the best prospects came in the form of the numerous predictions that saw the division championship coming down to a struggle between the defending champion Bengals and the Ravens. Pittsburgh was barely mentioned. With the Bengals imploding early (as usual), the Ravens demonstrating less dramatic improvement than had been hoped for, and the Steelers jumping off to a 3-0 record that line of reasoning was pretty much shredded very early in the season. However, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL bureaucracy soon rode to the rescue. They began an otherwise praiseworthy effort to alter the league culture in order to reduce the frequency and severity of head injuries, but their efforts devolved into a poorly managed witch hunt directed mainly against James Harrison. Players were fined heavily for plays that weren't even flagged, and all too often were flagged for actions that upon later examination were found to not be penalties. Frustrated with the frequency and escalating amount of the fines, Harrison, a Pro Bowler and legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of The Year, threatened to retire. Further exacerbating the situation was that while Steelers players were being punished for delivering clean hits to opposing players, Ben was being beaten, broken and brutalized in a manner that would have gotten his defensive teammates arrested, but did not even attract a flag from officials. Teammates and players for other teams began to speak out in Deebo's defense. Angry fans donated money to cover the cost of the fines. The Rooneys spoke out quietly, but publically in defense of their players. Players began denying NFL Flims access to some of their activities. The Steelers had their ‘Chip'.
Moving forward. Fortunately, the situation with the League Office seems to have cooled over the last few weeks. There have been few if any new fines levied, the rhetoric has died down, Harrison has been honored by the fans and his peers with another trip to the Pro Bowl. It would be extremely dangerous to have this sort of nonsense going on during Money time. Flags are more likely to be thrown fairly or not at all.
No worries, there are still plenty of ‘chips' out there to rally around. For instance, how can a team that is 12-4, earned a first round bye, has what is considered one of the best defenses not only of this year but many years, whose four losses have come only from playoff teams (the only team, I believe, that can make that claim), including the defending champion and the team with the best record in the league and accomplished this without its franchise quarterback for a quarter of the season, both starting offensive tackles and it's All Pro defensive lineman, and still be flying under the radar? And what about the Pro Bowl snubs of Timmons and Wallace, or the likely snub of Tomlin for Coach of the Year and the ongoing refusal to include Ben in the conversation of elite quarterbacks. Granted, if pressed those involved with the team will say that it is the team goals and successes that matter. But individual accolades usually accompany team success. And while some fans may be forgiven for over valuing a mid-season loss to a quality team as an indication of an inability to compete with such competition, pundits and more experienced observers should know better. After all, no one is questioning the ability of the Patriots to compete because they got blown out of the water by the Browns.
We have to face the fact that there exists a bias toward east coast teams and that those teams coming out of either the AFC or NFC East are going to be over-valued. The reasons for this are both psychological and practical. The sports networks and the league are headquartered on the east coast in New York and /or close to Boston. And the brutal economic truth is that a New England - Philadelphia Super Bowl would be more economically rewarding than, say Pittsburgh - Green Bay, two quality teams from small Midwestern markets. And how else to explain this Patriot bandwagon when they are six years removed from their last championship, and the two most recent champions, Saints and Steelers, are in the tournament (Baltimore, another east coast team in spite its AFC North associations, maintains the illusion that not making the Super Bowl is some sort of temporary setback from the norm. The Ravens last-and only championship was over a decade ago).
The counterargument would be that Pittsburgh, at least, has successfully developed an international following and its merchandise has outsold that of every other team this year. But few people are listening. In the meantime, this type of treatment will keep the team and its fans up to their collective waists in ‘chips' for quite some time. Bottom line, the team should be adequately angry and motivated when it takes the field Saturday.
Tomlin. When I posted the June piece Tomlin had not yet signed a contract extension. There was concern about this among probably most of the BTSC community, though there was a minority, albeit small, that argued that based on the '09 performance of the team perhaps an extension was premature and that he had yet to prove that he was of the caliber of Noll or Cowher. I respectfully, disagreed with those arguments then. Today, besides being moot, (an extension was signed) those arguments would not just be wrong, but ridiculous. Unfortunately, I fear that Tomlin's fate will be similar to Noll's; a great coach who may never get his proper due because of his steadfast refusal to self- promote, in the midst of "experts" who don't have a clue. Neal Coolong provides a pretty comprehensive piece on what Tomlin accomplished this season. I would just like to emphasize a couple of things that can't be emphasized enough.
Leadership. He kept his hand firm on the wheel through the Roethlisberger suspension (and release of a mid-career Super Bowl MVP), and the Harrison vs. Goodell mess; either one could have scuttled the season if mishandled.
Vision. He has always been good in this respect, but now he's really getting a handle of the more intricate details that have to be mastered on the way to larger goals. If you don't understand that this team has pretty much reached exactly the point where they were aiming for then you don't and won't get it. A division title and a bye week. These guys are playing chess, and they are good at what they do.
Connection. :Players, coaches, front office, fans, media. He gives all what they need, though not necessarily what they want.
Humility. He understands his limitations and is at peace with them. Nor does he give any indication of coveting anything beyond his mandate such as general manager responsibilities or celebrity status. He gives the appearance of a man who is doing everything he can to master his craft and is having a ball doing so. It's likely that he will have to win at least one more championship before his abilities are broadly recognized. That's setting the bar awfully high.
Moving Forward. With his brother entering the league coaching the 49ers, be prepared for a lot of hype around the Harbaughs in the immediate and long term future. Whether Tomlin continues to be viewed as a contender for Coach of the Year or even the best of his craft in the AFC North probably hinges on the outcome of Saturday's game. Tomlin is not going to get the benefit of the doubt.
Leadership. This is a factor that I believe has been overlooked. The Steelers are not just a veteran squad, but also a group with a lot of championship experience among its players. With the Saints now eliminated, it's not even close among the remaining teams in the tournament. While teams like the Patriots and the Ravens have significant institutional memory of championship play, the Steelers have that and a large number of players who have at least one and, particularly with the defense and quarterback, two championship rings. I believe this is more important than having the home field advantage. I could, obviously, be wrong but I believe that a level of play will be on display beginning this weekend that we haven't seen this season. Now if any team can withstand and overcome this potential advantage it would be the Ravens who might prevail on a simple diet of unadulterated hatred.
Moving Forward. If leadership makes a difference it'll mean that the margin of victory, if it comes, will be greater than usual, and the difference may come from veteran role players such as ARE, Foote, Fox or Allen.
The Quarterback Corps. This was an item that was featured more prominently in the summer. Everyone was obsessed with what would happen in the early games. There was an intense debate over whether Dixon or Leftwich should be given the ball in Ben's absence. We all now know the story of how Charlie Batch stepped forward from the edge of the football abyss and delivered two quality performances against the Bucs and Ravens.
Moving Forward. It has been decided that Leftwich is the number 2 guy. (Dixon is on IR). My problem is that the guy I saw in Cleveland is extremely rusty, he hasn't played a game in over a year, and couldn't even execute the most rudimentary of evasive tactics against a less than impressive pass rush. I would , quite frankly, prefer Batch in that #2 position. We forget that he successfully executed two long drives in that first Ravens game and lost by one play in that first game.
The Third Leg. The third leg of the stool is Special Teams. With the noticeable exception of the opening kickoff of the Jets game, Al Everest has done just as commendable a job with special teams as Kugler as done with the offensive line. This aspect of the team has pretty much turned out as well as most of us might reasonably hope.
Moving Forward. Can Kopinos and Suishum provide a reasonable facsimile of Sepulveda and Reed? Field position and the ability to score whenever the team gets in range may be the difference between victory and defeat.
Offensive Line. Take a good look. The days of the O-line being the weak link on this team are surely coming to an end. Kugler and his cornerstone player Pouncey will see to that. Unfortunately, help will not come soon enough to help us this year. They have played well enough for the most part over the last three games. Ben is doing his part by playing smarter ball. Will that continue, or will the Ravens or the next opponent crash through the weak link of Jonathan Scott and scuttle the season?
Moving Forward. Remember, that the offensive line was the problem with the '08 team as well. That group would grind the Chargers to dust, held its own against the Ravens and did what it had to do in the Super Bowl. This group is may be better talent wise. Its biggest problem has been chemistry issues with a crew that has never played together before. The improved play at the end of the year may not be an illusion.
Timmons, Wallace and Company. The questions in June was whether this would be Timmons breakout year, would Mike Wallace continue to progress as an elite receiver, and specifically, could he fill the considerable shoes of Santonio Holmes. Could a complementary back be developed to bolster the running attack with Mendenhall. And how would Ben respond to the suspension? All the answers have been positive. Timmons and Wallace both played at all star levels though they did not get selected this year. Redman has emerged as the necessary short yard complement to Rashard. Dwyer looks as if he could be next year's Redman. And like Wallace last year, Sanders and Brown are performing well ahead of schedule and could be major factors in the team's post season success.
Moving Forward. This is hard team to beat if everyone is on top of their game. Just too many quality weapons.
The Window. The idea that this would be the Steelers year to win a championship because the window of opportunity closes as key players get old or their contracts run out and they are not asked to return. But I say look at the player acquisitions in the Tomlin era and how quickly they are developing. The pieces necessary to take over for Hines (Sanders and Brown), Farrior (Sylvester), Smith (Hood), and others are already in place. The Steelers are already in the process of reloading. More help with lineman on both sides of the ball and defensive backs is all that is necessary.
Moving Forward. It remains to be seen, but the future may be now.
Saturday. Wish I could say that there is absolutely nothing to worry about concerning the Ravens game, though I personally believe the Steelers will win and perhaps do so more comfortably than expected. But regardless of the outcome, the team has put together an outstanding season and has provided fans with plenty of entertainment and pride throughout the fall and early winter.