With a late Bye week still two weeks away, the Steelers are already at the halfway point of the 2011 season. What have we learned and what are the challenges still ahead?
I'm an alumnus of Temple University. Temple's founder Russell H. Conwell was a Baptist minister who became well known because of a speech that he delivered over 6,000 times entitled Acres of Diamonds. The gist of the talk was the story of a man who sold his property and travelled to faraway lands in search of wealth. He would eventually die far from home and penniless. After his death diamonds were discovered on his own property.
The point of this story and its relationship to Steelers football will, hopefully, become apparent as we move forward.I suspect all but the most nitpicky of critics are feeling a lot better today than at the quarter pole. At that time there were serious questions whether this team had the necessities to be playoff eligible and playoff competitive. At various points questions were raised about the Front Office, the coaching staff and any number of players including some of the team's most decorated veterans. Both inside and outside Steeler Nation, an assessment began to take hold, sometimes whispered, just as often shouted from rooftops: Fraud. Or to use a direct quote: "Old, slow, done."
With the benefit of a little time we now see that many of the storylines in the season's first month were written with disappearing ink. For example, here in Redskin's land the team's early promise and division lead has evaporated into a nightmare. "Terrible" is the common description these days. Declared dead early on, teams like Philadelphia and Kansas City are in the midst of resurrections. And what about the Steelers?
Even with consecutive wins over the Titans, Jaguars and Cardinals there were fundamental concerns and doubts. All of these teams, as well as the two teams defeated in first quarter of the season were deeply flawed; ‘JV' was the term that was most bandied about. In addition, the team didn't just roll over these supposed cupcakes. What's going to happen when they have to play a REAL team? Well, you saw it this past Sunday. And as far as I can see so far everyone is absolutely delighted (except for that minority who will never acknowledge or allow themselves to experience any true satisfaction with the team's performance. Even if they achieve perfection, there is always next week or next year. We should pray for them and mail them a shipment of Tums.) It must also be noted that two of those JV cupcakes did a pretty good job of mauling the Ravens over the past two weeks. On the other hand, let me suggest that the Patriots team we defeated this week is probably not the monster that was advertised or feared. Quite a mystique has arisen surrounding this New England franchise. The Steelers punched a good sized hole in it, but it will take a few more shocks before the Pats are seen for what they are.
So, what are we to make of the Steelers at this point? I think you can boil it all down with one question/statement. The statement will be shocking to some, maybe embarrassing, possibly infuriating to others. But if you want to sum up what this franchise and this particular team is about this will do it:
How about that Willie Gay?
You all remember Willie Gay don't you? He was and probably still is in most corners of Steeler Nation beneath contempt; a fraud of a player who should have been cut the first day of training camp and condemned to teaching physical education in some nondescript backwater for the rest of his miserable, no talent life. Now, don't get testy. I'm not talking down to you; I felt the same way, sorta. This is the guy that got run over by Adrian Peterson as if he had stepped in front of a runaway freight train. He gave up a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl (extremely well thrown, but that's beside the point) and, in the minds of some, was singlehandedly responsible for the loss to the Packers. He was the weakest link in a defensive secondary that, at best, was deeply flawed, at worst, abysmal. And this team wasn't going anywhere until he was made to take a long walk on a short plank, and make sure, while they're at it, that he takes Keenan Lewis with him. How do you explain Gay's performance through the first seven games? Cupcake teams with cupcake quarterbacks. Brady will tear him a new one, right? It didn't quite turn out that way. The Steelers are ranked #1 in pass defense and Sunday's game, far from exposing the secondary, confirmed that its status, thus far, has been earned. And it's even more puzzling when you consider that Ike Taylor is playing at such a high level on the other side.
If you or I were fantasizing about being offered a position with the Steelers' organization we would likely flunk the interview; not savvy enough. It's not because we were wrong about Gay, it's just that we drew rash conclusions from insufficient data. The sign of great leadership and the particular genius of the Pittsburgh organization is the ability to place people in the position to succeed. It's easy to win with players like Newton or Suh. But Pittsburgh rarely has a high first round draft choice (the price they pay for continuing success on the field), yet they manage to be continuously competitive with personnel that other teams deem limited in some fashion. New England is similar in this regard, winning with players that other teams wouldn't take seriously.
Consider the receiver corps. Only Heath Miller is a first round draft pick (a lower first rounder). Yet Hines Ward is in the conversation for being a first round Hall Of Fame selection, while Mike Wallace is in the argument over the best receiver currently in football. Generally, the team is competing successfully utilizing many players from the bottom of the roster (McLendon, Carter, Sylvester and, yes, Gay). Success depends upon a high level of discernment, patience and support. Some players may be limited but can still contribute if placed in the right situation. Others have a high level of talent but are raw and simply need time to develop. This is a three legged stool: the front office's role and that of the coaches is substantial and obvious. The third leg comes in the form of mentoring from the veteran players. Where else do you hear young players speak of the assistance, encouragement and discipline they receive from the players whom they are likely to eventually replace?
In not understanding how this team ticks fans jump to wrongheaded, clumsy conclusions about players. Sometimes we are right, of course. Some players never fulfill their promise for a variety of reasons. The team has a lot of bad luck with second round draft choices if memory serves (They're like the crew members in the red shirts in the classic Star Trek television series; they're a sure bet to die.) But all too often, we are quick to want to kick a player to the curb or under the bus because they are either still developing or past their prime, not understanding that in the case of the former they simply need a little more time to mature. In the latter case they are offering much more than is apparent on the field of play.
If you pay attention to the commentaries leading up to and following the Patriots game it's clear that people don't get the Steelers, at least not completely. Pittsburgh keeps confounding their low expectations. Take the defense. Only one player could have been truly considered ‘old' by football standards (Casey Hampton). Keisel, Ike, Troy, Foote and Ryan Clark are in; perhaps the far side of their prime, but still in their prime. Woodley, Timmons, Ziggy, Mundy and Gay are young players still on the rise in some respects, while Lewis, Carter, Heyward, Allen, Sylvester and Carter are pups. This unit has suffered enough injuries to justify a below the line performance. And you must believe that having the likes of Hines, Aaron Smith, Charlie Batch and others in uniform and street clothes on the sidelines makes a huge difference than if they were home sitting on their sofas.
Too often the only solution that passes through the minds of fans for what may ail a team is to discard and replace. They are like the man in the Acres of Diamonds story, looking hither and yon, hoping that the promise of a free agent or hot shot rookie will be the diamond that is, in fact already lying in the backyard and just needs to be polished. The underlying assumption is that the cause and solution to all problems is simply a matter of talent. Of course talent is important, but if it were the only consideration Terrell Owens would have a job in the NFL today. The Rooneys and the people they employ understand that building a successful team involves much more than the accumulation of high value chess pieces. If we are honest, in spite of the considerable talent present on the roster, both friends and foes of the Steelers can't seem to help themselves from undervaluing their capabilities until they are confronted by a performance like last Sunday's. We look and we do not see. In the Tomlin era this team has ‘mysteriously' appeared in two Super Bowls while the attention of the smart money and the wise minds were elsewhere. Just like, for the time being at least, they have mysteriously appeared at the top of their conference. The concept is called synergy, and the Steelers are absolute masters of it. The undeniable, if humbling reality is that after half of the '11 season William Gay is playing at a level of competence such that the starter at the position cannot get back on the field. He is a positive contributor and stalwart to the #1 pass defense in the league. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
This should be the topic of a separate post, but I can't move on without a brief additional comment on the discard and replace mentality. Not only does this mindset reflect a certain superficiality and lack of sophistication, it also tends to be extremely callous. One is left to assume that to many of us professional football players are seen as cartoon characters and not men. In a recent post on BTSC someone spoke of a conversation he had with another fan when spoke of Gay in the manner in which many of us have become accustomed, that is to say in derogatory and contemptible terms. It turns out that he was speaking to Gay's girlfriend.
These are people who are trying to make a living just like most of us are. If they make it to a training camp roster, even if they are cut, they have reached a level of career competence that most of us can only dream of. To be fired is usually a tragedy. I hope that your next performance evaluation is more charitable than what is afforded to some of these players.
Coaching. The victory over the Pats marks the fifth consecutive season (and his entire head coaching career) that Mike Tomlin has led his team to a 6 - 2 start. I think that constitutes a pattern. And think about the obstacles that had to be overcome; injuries, suspensions, difficult schedules. At what point do we allow ourselves to stop tiptoeing around the subject and declare that Tomlin is a great, if underexposed and underappreciated coach? No more of this ‘Well the jury is still out' or ‘Until he wins four Super Bowls' or ‘He doesn't do this or that well'. We are well beyond any sort of probationary period. Yes, he has great managerial and ownership support. And unlike other teams the Rooneys don't mettle in the coaching process. And yes, he has great talent on the team. And he is directly responsible for the procurement and development of much of it. I don't have to wait for him to get a few more years under his belt. I've seen enough. And please direct me to any current coach who is better over the same five year period; Wisenhunt, McCarthy, Peyton, Reid, the Harbaugh Bros. (individually or combined), Ryan, Mr. Hoodie? This team may or may not make it back to the playoffs, but if they don't it won't be because of the coaching. And let's not forget his superior staff which he also deserves much credit for its development and management. And yes, that includes Arians. Anyone have any problems with the offense this past week?
The Lake Effect (cont.) When I brought this up a month ago many thought that it was premature to evaluate the impact of Carnell Lake on the development and performance of the secondary. I am open to the possibility that it is still premature to draw any conclusions in that regard, but I'm going to do so anyway. The resurrection of Gay, the maturation of Lewis, the emergence of Allen, the Pro Bowl caliber performance of Ike, not to mention Troy, Ryan, and Mundy. What was considered an area of crippling weakness is now, an island of strength. Come to think of it, with a head coach who cut his teeth in the league as a secondary coach, a Hall Of Fame defensive back as defensive coordinator and an All Pro as the current secondary coach, why are we surprised?
Ben. AFC Offensive Player of The Week twice in one month. Not bad. The commentators of Sunday's game made an important point that Steeler Nation would do well to meditate upon and accept; unless he is injured or until his skills fade the Steeler offense goes through Ben. Since we've had so few franchise quarterbacks over the history of the organization we may be forgiven for not understanding. A franchise quarterback does not just stand in the backfield and hand the ball off to someone else, even Franco or Jerome in their primes. It does not mean that the running attack is mothballed, but given the realities of the modern NFL the running game may manifest in a variety of interesting ways. Based on his performance in October, there will be no more conversations concerning the elite quarterbacks in the league without Ben being in the middle of the discussion for the foreseeable future.
Receivers. The Young Money coming out party continues. The really fun part is realizing that barring injury, Brown, Sanders and Wallace are only going to get better and better. And then there is Heath, Hines and Jerrico. Joy.
Offensive Line. Speaking of areas of weakness, the injury epidemic involving the O-Line has eased and the resulting consistency is evident in their performance the last few weeks. If the knucklehead factor (this means you Kemo) can be kept under control then it looks like their performance will continue to flourish.
Defense. Old, slow, done. What a joke. Keisel, Woodley and Ike are performing at Pro Bowl levels. The young linemen are stepping up. We've talked about the secondary. The loss of Aaron Smith hurts us both on the level of the competition of the moment as well just trying to cope with the loss of a long time, beloved performer. He may be done, but let's please refrain from shoving him out the door. He is still a valuable presence as a mentor. The defense needs him. The injury bug has moved to the other side of the ball. The team's success going forward may depend upon how well they weather the storm and how the pups step up to face the stiff challenges ahead. You were wondering what Worilds, Sylvester, Carter and Heyward were capable of. You'll love these next couple of weeks.
Special Teams. I really appreciate the lack of indigestion that I experience on kickoff and punt coverage these days. I also like the excitement and sense of possibility that is a part of every occasion the Antonio Brown touches the football. My only concern: I really don't want to have a playoff win come down to a field goal attempt. In this regard I miss Jeff Reed.
Schedule. Gauging the schedule is always a tricky thing given the fact that we base our assumptions on how teams performed the previous year. The reality in the NFL is some teams go through 180 degree changes from year to year, and often within the parameters of the same year. A lot of us thought that after this next game against the Ravens that things would ease up schedule wise. Instead, the third quarter will constitute the most critical challenge for this year's team, especially the next two games. The opportunity exists for the team going into the Bye with a stranglehold on the division and a playoff berth or fighting for our playoff lives.
Injuries may be the factor that makes this easy or very hard. As far as the first half is concerned; for all the fussing and fretting you have to admit that its mission accomplished. 8 - 0 would certainly be nice, but nobody is better position in the AFC at this juncture. The team is trending and jelling in the right direction at the right time. Let's hope they can keep it going.