The divisional and playoff fate of the Steelers will likely be determined in games nine through 12 when they confront the Ravens twice and have an additional division game against the Browns. And if you need any additional evidence of the value of November football just review the 2009 season. Things were looking pretty good at this point of that season as well.
Okay, the preceding is for those among us (myself included) who recoil in terror when the team looks really good. For some it is a sort of misplaced perfectionism, for others it is the fear of being setup emotionally for a fall, and then there are the superstitious and those who believe that you are only a serious critic if you are focusing on the flaws. Now let me talk about what I really think.
The summary is that the Steelers are beginning to look like the team that many of us imagined they could be during the off season. The evolving narrative at this point of the 2012 season is that of a team that has taken some time to come together based upon the following issues.
While the loss of team leadership in form of players like Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith may have had a minor on the field impact given the diminished role that those players had in recent years, the off field contributions have probably been more difficult to quantify. The torch has been passed, but it may have taken some time for adjusting to the new reality.
There has also been the matter of transitioning to a new offensive system, and also integrating some new personnel as well as returning players adjusting to new responsibilities. Many gave lip service in acknowledging this learning curve, but panicked (there really isn't any other term for it) when confronted with the reality of it in the early going.
Even putting aside the above factors, team building and cohesion is an ongoing challenge every year regardless of personnel and systemic changes that make the process more complicated. An experienced organization like Pittsburgh recognizes this and exercises patience with team development both short and long term. Unfortunately, many fans and the media seem to never learn this lesson. As Ben Roethlisberger pointed out in a recent interview, "It doesn't do you any good to get hot in the beginning of the year, unless you can sustain it." When we were making our first quarter evaluations some of the hot teams included the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. Anyone scared of them now? And even the undefeated Atlanta Falcons are frustrated by the underwhelming response to their success. My suspicion is that is because they are more likely to be following the path of the 2007 Patriots as opposed to the 1972 Dolphins. That team has yet to prove that they are anything to fear in January. Who cares what they accomplish in October?
The final issue has been that of injuries that has manifested in two ways. First there are the long term injury issues that were carried into the season from last year. Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison and Jason Worilds returned from long term afflictions, but are only now beginning to approach peak performance levels. In the meantime new injuries to key personnel such as Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, David DeCastro and others have accumulated. And though the team has seemed to be cursed, actually Pittsburgh has been more fortunate than many other teams where key personnel have been lost for the long haul. With the exception of David Johnson and Sean Spence (so far) most of injured players have or are likely to return for the latter portion of the season. However, when factored in to the other adjustment issues it helped create the appearance of a team that was far less capable in the early going.
We have moved from speculation to reality with Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley, and the reports of Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau's obsolescence have proven to be premature at best. In the case of Haley both the coach and his players are getting comfortable with the system and what we are seeing is a combination of old and new elements that is both traditional smash mouth Steeler football with an airborne component that may have the greatest quick strike capacity in the entire league. In their preseason analysis the New York Times predicted that when this offense matured it would be "borderline unstoppable." That might have seemed like hyperbole in the summer and the height of delusion in September, but not anymore. The issue of whether Haley and Ben will come to blows should have been put to bed a long time ago, but it would be unwise to underestimate the stubbornness of the media and their desire (wishful thinking) for drama and controversy.
A defense that looked all the world to be too old and inept a few weeks ago looked remarkably robust against what was likely the strongest opponent the team has faced thus far this year in the Giants. While the defense didn't have the system changes that the offense has had to cope with, they were confronted with the more disruptive challenges as far as personnel issues were concerned. They lost Farrior, Smith and Hoke and had injury issues involving Harrison, Hampton, Polamalu, Woodley, Clark, Sylvester, Spence and Worilds. Indications are that they will be what they have been for years now; one of the best and stingiest units in the league. And that in combination with an offense that, if not borderline unstoppable, at least consistently dominates time of possession should be difficult to deal with.
Mike Tomlin will continue to draw criticism for some of his tactical decisions, most recently the ill fated fake field goal attempt in the Giants game. Tomlin haters and other worrywarts have to have something to hang their hats on until something meatier comes along. But Pittsburgh would have been excused if they fell short of being a serious playoff challenger in what has been generally considered a transition year. The fact that those of us within Steeler Nation and increasingly outside of it as well see the possibility that the team could be a major player in the playoff field speaks volumes about the strength of the organization, but also the leadership of Tomlin. He and his staff have positioned this team to effectively compete this year, and every year of his tenure. Who has a better staff top to bottom?
A couple of weeks ago I suggested that Willie Colon's molestation of Bengal's linebacker Vontaze Burfick might be a pivotal moment in the development of this year's team. I am doubling down on that assertion. The intimidation factor is back. It is fair to say that one of the characteristics of the past three Steelers victories is the fact that their opponents have been unnerved at the prospect of facing this team on a physical level. This is a team that will not only beat their opponents but beat them up as well. This is to be expected from the likes of James Harrison and Ryan Clark, but it's also coming from, perhaps even initiated from the offensive side of the ball; Colon, Pouncey and Foster (Neal Coolong's Run PFC). You would expect that DeCastro will fit right into this scenario. And Manny Sanders has picked up the tradition of the Steelers wide receivers taking the fight to the defense, putting the lie to the notion that the wideouts are divas, soft. The matchups against the Ravens are almost always bloodbaths, the bumblebees taking the field on national television in two weeks may take violence to a new level. The only regret being that we won't be able to see Willie and Ray Lewis tee off. That would be something.
Three things stand out here. Ben is on his way to one of his best years. He is at the height of his powers and is a legitimate MVP candidate. He is doing it within the parameters of the new system and doing so has not hampered what Ben does best. The idea that this would be an either or decision has become a non problem. Most important at this juncture is that Ben has been relatively clean. He has taken very few hits and at present his health is not a concern. That could change with one play, but we are not talking about Ben being worn down. Because of this Leftwich and Batch have not been part of the conversation, but do not underestimate the value of the brain trust in that room. As the offense and season matures the experience, wisdom and leadership at that position may play important if invisible dividends moving forward.
Because I know they do not have the integrity to do so I will apologize for those who desired to throw Offensive Line Coach Sean Kugler under the bus during the early season panic. It is no exaggeration that the O line is showing signs of not just competence, but dominance. As formidable as the other aspects of the offense are our attention is increasingly being drawn to the trenches. Not just competent, not just dominant, but mean. Adams is proving his potential. DeCastro may get his chance. And before you write off Gilbert, remember that he is not much more than a pup himself, thrown into the fray probably sooner than he was ready. Pray that there are no more severe injuries and there may very be something special become manifest by December.
There is a problem here. Honestly, who do you play? You almost want to root for there to continue to be round after round of these small nagging injuries so the hard decisions can continue to be avoided. Mendenhall, Redman and Dwyer can all lay legitimate claim to reps; Mendy if you want a homerun hitter, Redman for the tough short yards (and more), and Dwyer for what's in between. A great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. This is a young, maturing group (and we're not even discussing Rainey and Batch at this point), that is talented across the board. You may have your favorite, but don't try to justify your choice by seeking to diminish the others. Its more complicated than that.
This group is now beginning to be widely recognized as perhaps the best and most dangerous receiver corps around. Just this past Sunday alone we've been reminded of two important things. Manny Sanders has demonstrated why he won the two dogs one bone competition with Antonio Brown when both were rookies. And with one play, Mike Wallace showed how hate can make you stupid. Thirty one teams would love to take Wallace with all of his alleged flaws off of Pittsburgh's hands.
Admit it. When Keenan Lewis talked of making the Pro Bowl you thought he was being silly braggart, didn't you? The idea doesn't seem so outrageous now. It's taken a while but the defensive backs are beginning to demonstrate the same moxie that they generated last year. Casey Hampton and James Harrison are getting healthier, meaning reports of both players being washed up are premature. LaMarr Woodley is spending more time on the field. When these guys are around it seems that Timmons and Keisel play better. And as we still hold out hope for Troy's return, they may be able to compete without him for the time being. It is unlikely that the offenses that they face over the next four weeks are better than New York's. The biggest problem facing the defense now is is the third team on the field, the officials and the league office.
Think about this. There are three players on the roster who are capable of returning a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown at any time. Not fixed, but trending in the right direction, the biggest impediment to leveraging this advantage, penalties is being addressed. Suisham isn't much of a running back, but there are no complaints about his performance as a kicker. Butler hasn't had much work; a good thing. The win against the Giants can be credited as much to special teams as to the performance of the offense or defense. They don't have to score to make a difference. The chances of this unit delivering favorable field position for one of the other two units is pretty high.
What must the Steelers do moving forward? Try to stay as healthy as they can. Win the games they are supposed to this quarter. That would mean at least two wins this next quarter, and get a least a split with Baltimore which give them eight wins going into the stretch run in December. Of course 4-0 would be better and not out of the realm of possibility. It is not unreasonable that the level of play for the offense will improve as the season wears on. Promising. This team should be fun to watch. What do you think?