Week 3. Things are settling down a bit now. It's beginning to feel normal. But it is still September and the season narrative is still unclear. Most of the people I've talked to were surprised at the outcome of the Thursday night game between the Giants and Panthers; the winner or the onesideness of the game or both. What's real? The Peyton Manning of week one or week two; the juggernauts from New England, Baltimore and Tampa Bay in week one or the more flawed versions on display in week two; Are the 49ers and Falcons that good; are the Saints and Chiefs that bad?
And, of course, what about the Steelers? Will this week's game be a blowout, a trap game or a muddle? The signs point to a dominant performance but out of superstition, history, more genuine concerns or just because its Steelers fans you're talking about here there is some hesitation.
Officiating, fines and injuries are all part of the equation this week as well. And the Bye week is sneaking up on us. Given the intense focus that we've had with the immediate competition issues, the fact that the team is celebrating its 80th anniversary has faded in the background somewhat lately. However, this week's game does have some historical significance.
It really is a shame that the Pittsburgh/Oakland rivalry isn't what it used to be. If you were too young or not yet tuned into Steelers football during the 1970s you have to trust me when I say that the combination of the character of the teams and their leadership, quality of play, intensity, the stakes and the hatred was at a level rarely matched before or since. In a piece in the Tribune-Review Alan Robinson takes the reader down memory lane to a Steelers vs Raiders contest played 40 years ago this week. The teams played twice that year. The better known contest was the Immaculate Reception playoff game. The significance of this game may have been just as great, though not nearly as dramatic. Robinson identifies that game, a Steelers victory over an established NFL power, with being the turning point for a franchise that was a perennial doormat to what we celebrate today.
The animosity was not confined to the field. Even the normally diplomatic Dan Rooney (who actually is a diplomat these days) was moved to say unkind things about Raider owner Al Davis. Davis, who coveted the Commissioner job held then by Pete Roselle, constantly complained that there was a conspiracy against the Raiders (Kinda of like how we think about Roger Goodell). The Steelers in this narrative always represent the NFL establishment, and as such no victory, particularly the playoff games, were legitimate but just part of the grand design to deny the Raiders their greatness. Steelers coach Chuck Noll won the war on the field over his Raider counterpart John Madden four Lombardis to one, but apparently Madden has won the PR war over time. Each team has had their bouts with mediocrity over the years and they have not played a high stakes game since the 1980s. The tradition of hostility has survived, most recently when the Raiders Richard Seymour hit Ben Roethlisberger in the mouth touching off a mild, by Steelers/Raiders standards, melee in a recent game.
A moment I believe best represents the rivalry occurred during the 1974 AFCCG, a Pittsburgh victory that led to the team's first world championship. Joe Greene described the moment in the America's Game episode highlighting that season. Steeler defensive tackle Ernie Holmes calls out to Oakland Hall Of Fame guard and future President of the NFLPA Gene Upshaw in the Raiders huddle. When he gets Upshaw's attention Holmes says "I'm gonna kick your ass!"
Once again the Steeler defense will be taking the field without All Pro players James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. They are still nursing knee and calf injuries respectively and have been ruled out of Sunday's game. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester is working his way back but will also be unavailable this week. Tight end Heath Miller will play.
While the Steelers have suffered a lot of nagging injuries early in the season and a couple of lost players (David Johnson and Sean Spence), in spite of the perception, it is doubtful that the injury situation is any worse for Pittsburgh then for any other team in the league. No players were lost as a result of second game action. By contrast, the Redskins lost two key defensive starters for the season. The Patriots will be without the services of tight end Aaron Hernandez for a number of weeks due to a high ankle sprain. Bill Barnwell writes about an injury epidemic that the Rams have been dealing with over the past few years that appears very similar to that of the Steelers.
Though there is no evidence to collaborate my point of view, I believe that the team is erring on the side of caution with some of their injured players. Chances are pretty good that they can win against the 0-2 Raiders without a full quiver, and if so with the Bye week looming a couple of more weeks of healing could make the difference in the availability and quality of play that Troy, Deebo and others can provide going forward.
Running Backs and Mendenhall
During the season's first two games the Steelers have clearly rededicated themselves to the run in intent if not results. The returns are somewhat anemic so far, so much so that Mike Tomlin addressed the issue this week expressing displeasure with the results. It would be a mistake to conclude that there is any great loss in confidence with the current stable of running backs. I believe the consensus among fans is that the running game is a work in progress and that better days are ahead if strategically the offense stays the course. The results were encouraging during the long fourth quarter drive versus the Jets, and there is help on the way.
The reviews from the practice field have been good for number one back Rashard Mendenhall. And though he will, once again, be held out of Sunday's game, it seems likely that he will rejoin the backfield sometime in October. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer have acquitted themselves reasonably well, and those who have been paying attention would have to be impressed with the work that Baron Batch has been doing in providing blocking support on obvious passing downs. And with Chris Rainey I believe its just a matter of time before he explodes. But what has also been made clear is that Mendenhall is the lead dog, the homerun hitter of the group. I would be surprised if the productivity of this aspect of the offense doesn't improve dramatically upon his return.
As expected ILB Lawrence Timmons was fined $21,000 dollars by the league for a hit he put on Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in the first half of Sunday's game. Apparently there are no regrets as that hit is credited as being a key turning point in the game, leading to greater defensive effectiveness by the Steelers and rendering the Jets offense impotent.
Putting aside the unfortunate and untimely interception late in the Denver game, the Steelers quarterback has been playing impressively. His third down efficiency rating is 146.8 with a 56 percent completion percentage, both are best in the league at this time. If he continues along this track he will be solidly be in the conversation for league MVP. The Steelers passing attack is humming along nicely and we can only wonder what we will behold when the running game gets untracked.
DeMarcus Van Dyke
Every year there is a newcomer, usually a lower round draft choice or UDFA who captures the imagination of the fans who then adopt him, root hard for him and lobby for him to receive more opportunities. The most obvious successful example is Isaac Redman (there are any number of players who eventually failed no matter how hard the Nation pulled for his success). Baron Batch has been another recent example. The thinking this year was probably that it would be Chris Rainey. The late pickup of Van Dyke seemed curious, even a bit peculiar since most thought that the team would pick up an offensive lineman to stand in the gap until David DeCastro returns, or simply keep one of the other DBs who have been in camp all summer. Van Dyke was involved in two significant special teams plays against the Jets; being involved with a big turnover, and influencing a touchback on another. He is extremely raw, but has intriguing physical attributes in terms of both size and speed. Ironically, the Raiders who released him this summer now have issues due to injuries at defensive back and could use Van Dyke's help at this point. It appears a new love affair has begun.
Remember earlier in the year when we were wondering where the leadership would come from now that players like James Farrior, Hines Ward and Aaron Smith were gone? It was believed by some that Mike Tomlin might be one who would stand in the gap until a new generation of team leaders established themselves. Perhaps that is why he was so animated, fist bumping and back slapping the offensive line after they stuck the dagger into the Jets. I get the feeling that this past week's win was more important than it might have been in other years. Not that winning was new for the majority of the players on the team, but it established that this particular team can win. It will be interesting to see if Tomlin continues to be more demonstrative as the season wears on.
Its not a good thing when one of the top stories is the performance of the game officials; not just in one or two games but across the board including the most outrageous call against the Steelers since the 2005 divisional playoff game where an obvious Troy Polamalu interception was called incomplete (The league would later apologize and admitted that a mistake had been made). In addition to bad calls these officials are losing control of games resulting in a lot of chippy behavior. Given the tradition and character of the Steelers and Raiders it could get real interesting in Oakland Sunday afternoon. Expect Harrison to draw a fine, and yes I know he's not playing.
Would be remiss if I didn't mention that some in the BTSC community are conducting a boycott of non Steelers games until the regular union officials return.
Arguably the biggest and certainly the saddest story this week is the passing of NFL Films Steve Sabol after a battle with brain cancer. My love of football and of the NFL was nurtured by the weekly and yearly highlight packages put out by NFL films. Not only did it encourage a love of football, but it helped fans to appreciate all of the teams and players in the league, not just the local club. With an approach that was always cultured and artful, often humorous and always respectful of the game and its players Sabol played a crucial role in helping professional football to overtake major league baseball and college football with the affection of the American public. Homer J gets the last word on this today.