There are so many interesting questions that can be asked at this point of the season and precious few legitimate answers. This is not just true about the Pittsburgh Steelers but about what's going on in the NFL in general. I can't remember a time, for instance, when factors outside of the control of players and coaches have had such an impact on the outcome of games and the perception of the product. At least we know that we no longer have to deal with the effects of the lockout when the team returns to play. It will be interesting to see if the trajectory of the remainder of the season changes, and if those changes benefit the Steelers. But regardless of those issues here is my take as to where the team is based on what has happened in September.
Should we be panicking about the performance of the defense?
There is nothing to panic about at any level this early in the season. As FDR said "The only thing to fear is fear itself". Yes, the performance of the defense in two out three games in the second half has been below the line, but consider the following.
I and others have pointed out that offensive line play is ensemble work. Mentioned less often is that so is the defense, or at least this defense. It is a complex, interdependent system and as such when it works it looks brilliant, but like all complex systems small breakdowns can have a catastrophic impact. Farrior, Smith and Hoke are gone. Harrison has missed three games, Polamalu two and Clark one. Forget for the moment what this means from the perspective of talent, but just focus upon the issues of familiarity and continuity. In a number of important ways this group is just getting acquainted. Carter, Allen and Lewis are relative neophytes in terms of their roles. The question came up in recent interviews if some of the mistakes that are occurring are a consequence of players trying to do too much. If there is uncertainty and a lack of trust that would be explanation enough for some of the breakdowns since so much of the defense depends upon maintaining discipline rather than superhuman freelancing. One of the things that hasn't been talked about much that I have been concerned about has been the relative disappearance of Brett Keisel. But then I remembered that he plays alongside of James Harrison. It would make sense that the absence of one would have an impact on the relative effectiveness of the other. How to deal with a Pro Bowl caliber defensive end playing beside an All Pro outside linebacker presents a dilemma for an offense. Replace the All Pro with a promising, inexperienced second year player, not so much.
And to anticipate another set of concerns, Harrison didn't become Harrison overnight. Neither did Polamalu. A unit experiencing growing pains is different from a unit being in a state of decline. Are we witnessing the former or the latter? A lot of people don't want to accept the possibility that Rome isn't built in a day. With inexperience disregarded, the only alternative is incompetence, either of the players or the coach (LeBeau).
Coming back to the issue of talent: while the absence of Polamalu and Harrison can possibly be overstated, so can the importance of systems. Some of us take this 'the standard is the standard' business too far. Talent (and experience) counts for something too. To be named Defensive Player Of the Year is no small thing. Troy and Deebo are arguably generational players, that is to say that is the frequency that those types of individuals come along. To have two of that type playing at the same time for the same team is special. To remove both and honestly believe there will not be a dropoff is ridiculous. Whether you can still function effectively is another matter. The Jets game is proof that you can, however the margin of error is narrower. But it is hard for me to believe that the presence of these two players in relative good health would not have made a difference in the team's performance.
Another concern has to do with the rule changes and other factors that have led to the gradual erosion of defensive effectiveness in general. The fact that some teams feel comfortable running option plays with their quarterbacks is a red flag to me on the issue of the emasculation of defenses. Some of the challenges faced by the league's defenses are institutional.
Should we be concerned about the running game?
At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, not yet.
The four things I think about the offense.
First, its not broken. There really isn't much of a problem controlling the clock or scoring points. It is still in the early stages of a new system and therefore reasonable to expect that if anything the offense will be more potent in the coming weeks.
Second, the best offensive skill players are Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. I am not precluding the possibility that Redman, Dwyer, Batch and Rainey can develop to comparable levels, but they aren't there yet. Sorry you Mendenhall haters, but Rashard is the only back who has the resume to be in the same conversation with that first group, and he isn't available yet. Batch and Rainey are playing in their first NFL games ever, and particularly in Rainey's case, it shows. Redman and Dwyer are also plowing new ground with their work loads. With experience and reps and the return of Mendy this group can be fine. In the meantime what's the logic in suppressing Ben and the receivers for the abstract notion of balance?
Third, with all the off season talk and excitement about offensive line upgrades, the group that is starting now were all on the roster last year. The configuration is new. Colon has already played in more games than he has in the last two years combined. Starks is rounding into shape from a knee injury. Gilbert and Foster have both been nicked. Adams, DeCastro and Beachum really are not part of the conversation yet. And considering all of that while it is certainly not where we would hope to be can you really say that there hasn't been a notable improvement in offensive competence?
Fourth, while we are hoping that the defense will improve as the season wears on, it is understood that the best days for this offense would come later in the year as everyone got more comfortable with the scheme and all the weapons came on line. So barring the "I" word it is not just wishful thinking to assume that the offensive's best days lie ahead.
Ben is at the top of his game thus far. I haven't seen everyone play, but I'm having a hard time coming up with anyone who is playing better at quarterback to this point. Give Haley and the coaching staff credit for a scheme that appears to play well to Ben's strengths. And if he can manage to stay upright the team will remain competitive regardless of whether the defense improves or not.
Heath Miller has been playing at or near the peak of his offensive potential, perhaps for the first time in his career. This will pay dividends for the red zone offense, the wideouts and maybe even the running game over time.
Mike Wallace. Three games, three touchdowns, no injuries. The haters are quiet which is wise because so far you're looking kinda silly. Props also to the rest of the receiver corps; Sanders, Jerricho and AB even with his little bout of the dropsies. They are performing as advertised. And don't forget that Weslye Saunders will be back soon.
Baron Batch. As of now he is winning the day for the job as third down back. He is unspectacular, but he just does his job and does it well. He is a joy to watch as a blocker (despite his relatively small size) and he has showed me something with the other aspects of the job in this last game. No big knock on Rainey, I'm sure he'll be fine, but right now Batch is clearly the more complete player for that role.
A crack or two in the armor here. Drew Butler who is a fine punter when he is on showed some of the troubling inconsistency that he demonstrated in training camp at an inopportune time in Oakland. He needs to not make that too much of a habit. Kapinos has already demonstrated (assuming he's still available) that he can come off the couch and make a good accounting for himself. On the other hand Suisham has been very consistent so far. But that is, unfortunately, cold comfort given the nature of his job. And there have been plenty of examples of field goal kickers whose errant attempts have delivered their teams to ruin so far this season. Amos Jones needs to get the point across that more often than not it is not worth it to risk a holding or blocking in the back penalty given the homerun potential of the return game.
Keep in mind that the Steelers will end September with the same number of losses they had last year. I think we should consider three perspectives on where we stand at this point of the season.
Labor issues have distorted the progress of the season for the second consecutive year. Rule changes have had an impact as well. My standard posture is that the early trends are ultimately misleading in predicting how things will pan out over the long haul of the season. But this year may be even more misleading than normal. The difference between a 1-2 or 3-0 record in so many cases is literally one or two plays. And it is not an exaggeration that decisions made in New York City have had an on the field impact for a number of teams. Folks in Boston, New Orleans, Green Bay, Washington DC, Seattle, Denver, Atlanta and Baltimore are learning what the Pittsburgh crowd has known for a couple of years now; the Joy of Goodell. Based upon the league generated distortions and the razor thin nature of so many early season contests are you comfortable writing off the Packers, Patriots and Steelers? Or ready to pencil in Arizona, Atlanta and Houston for the Super Bowl? How solid is the 2-1 records for the Eagles, Ravens and Bengals?
There may also be another long term trend at play here as well. As Allen Barra points out in his piece in The Atlantic, last year's championship run by the Giants may have signaled the triumph of parity. That is to say that we may now see truly mediocre teams winning Super Bowls by getting momentum and a little luck at the right time. If so then regular season dominance could be rendered irrelevant. Make the playoffs anyway you can, get hot in December/January and hope for a few lucky bounces of the ball to get over the hump. In such a scenario September football in the NFL would be about as important as NBA basketball or NHL hockey in November and December; which is to say, not very.
Finally, there is the reality of the Steelers being a team in a state of transition. The question that cannot be answered definitively at this time is how long will it take for the team to hit its stride, and whether or not it is at the point developmentally where it can compete at the highest level successfully this year, or are they realistically a year away. Some of the specific questions are when does Harrison return, and at what level of effectiveness? The same for Troy, and Mendenhall. Can the defense, offensive line and running back corps. gel quickly and completely enough to get the team to the level where it can be in the championship conversation? And if not can Ben and the receiving corps. along with steady and occasionally spectacular play from special teams bridge the gap? And, of course, can they remain reasonably healthy at key positions? These are the questions and challenges that will be addressed from now until November.