All things considered, it would be hard to imagine the Steelers enjoying a much better won/loss record at this point of the season, given the challenges they faced coming in. So why the fuss?
The Steelers are the strangest good team in football. They’ve embarrassed 2013 division champs Carolina and Indianapolis—and been embarrassed by Tampa Bay and Cleveland. But they’re smack dab in the middle of the AFC North race now.
The key words by MMQB's Peter King are "strangest" and "good". Slow on the uptake as usual, the national media is still ahead of some within Steelers Nation in evaluating the direction of this team. King gives a more detailed assessment of where he see the Steelers at this point, and it's not only about Ben's big day this past Sunday. It's worth a look here. So what are we to make of this team going forward into the second half?
The Super Bowl is not won (nor lost) in September or October.
This is NFL football 101, but it's a course that legions of fans and media types flunk year after year. It's good for business though, in that it makes for a high level of emotional engagement at a time of the year when things look much better or much worse for many teams than what the final outcomes will be.
Earlier in the season, I referred to former Steeler and broadcaster Tunch Ilkin, who asserted then and continues to preach that teams don't really establish their identities until about the midpoint of the season. This is confirmed not just by the 'strange' behavior of the Steelers, but also that the entire league is being viewed in a similar fashion at the season's midpoint. One of the defining descriptions of many who follow the game, however, is not the polarity of optimism/pessimism (cynicism?), but shortsightedness. The media and fantasy culture encourages it, indeed punishes patience. But patience is foundational to individual and team development. As a friend of Hombre's has said, fans do not think so much as react. And if you're coming from a reactive space, then the first-half performance of the Steelers (and a lot of other teams) has driven you crazy.
This is a team defined by inconsistency.
Everyone would have felt better if the Steelers had the same record but had lost to Carolina and Indianapolis, as opposed to the Bucs and the Browns. This means that, even though the yo-yo pattern was broken this week against the Colts and the schedule moving forward looks favorable, no one actually knows what's going to happen next. This team is capable of beating anybody on one hand, and losing to anybody on the other. The bet here is that the worst is over, but I don't think anyone knows the full extent of what that means. They could pulverize the Ravens then lose to the Jets. Unless someone pushes the panic button (and fingers are poised as I write) then they'll get through this developmental phase, but it's simply unwise to try to predict when that time will be. Maybe this season, maybe a bit later.
This is a "good" team in the making.
The question as to whether this is a team on the rise or in decline is largely settled. It doesn't mean that they're going to make the playoffs this season. The Steelers are sufficiently flawed and fragile to fall short. But to use a phase that has been turned against this organization for the past couple of years, they are what their record says they are. They are what observers from Peter King to Neal Coolong say they are - a team undeniably trending upward and likely to only get better with time. The cynics will resist. They have no choice really. Their egos and worldviews depend on it. After all, how do you cut and fire everyone if the team is actually doing well? So some will say that 5-3 has to be seen as a disappointment. Some will try to make the Colts game be about Cortez Allen instead of Ben. Expect it. Ignore it. What other options are available?
Amazingly, the chances of a division title and playoff spot are more than just a mathematical possibility.
At just a half-game off pace in their division, the Steelers control their own fate. Win out in their final three divisional matchups and the title is likely theirs. As for the playoffs generally, the successful teams will probably be those that can keep pace throughout November and then put on the finishing kick in December. Nothing particularly heroic or bizarre is required, just a persistent adherence to what they're capable of accomplishing. Of course, this has been exactly their problem through the first half of the season. The good news is that the Steelers' fate is in their own hands. Unfortunately, that's also the bad news.
I'd prefer not to say anything at all and jinx things, but injuries have been minimally disruptive so far and might continue to prove an advantage for an organization that has a relatively narrow margin of error in terms of the talent and experience it needs on the field to be competitive. Ryan Shazier, who went down at the end of the season's first quarter, is back. Ike and Jarvis Jones will probably be back by the time the third-quarter report is due. Every other player of significance is currently in the mix.
Coaching and management
This is such an easy area to criticize because so much is unknown and out of view of the critics that anything can be said without the critic ever needing to address reality or facts. So, Tomlin, his staff and the FO have been easy and consistent targets during the past couple of years. But given time, certain truths become more difficult to deny or ignore. Tomlin's most important achievement IMO is that at no point in the midst of all the uncertainty and turmoil has he lost his team. Negative assessments decrease dramatically the closer you get to people who actually have first-hand knowledge of the team and its operations. In other words, we have a strong correlation between negativity and ignorance.
One need only go to the defending-champion Seahawks to see how quickly things can go south. Players like Harvin and Lynch are undeniable talents but would you prefer we be dealt their hand? I don't think there's sufficient appreciation of the fact that the team culture could have gone in some ugly and toxic directions based on many of the challenges that have emerged over the past couple of seasons. At no point have this team or its individuals lost their poise or focus. This is no small thing. You can be critical of this group's mental toughness on the field at times, but they've held together despite the best efforts and wishes of some to tear them apart. That's a coaching win and a big one.
They virtually disappear from our notice during the season, but the position coaches have done a great job generally this year. Much has been made of Munchak, and deservedly so, but Mann (receivers), Saxon (running backs), Mitchell (D line) and Butler (linebackers) are doing great jobs as well.
This would have been a very different report only ten days or so ago. But the offense is finally showing signs of settling into a consistent pattern of performing to its potential. While the Colts game represents the high-end of that potential, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as an anomaly or even beyond the team's capacity. As Ben and others have pointed out, there were opportunities and points left on the table during this victory as well. And as Ben also pointed out, what might be the new normal might not be too far removed from what was on display Sunday.
First ballot Hall of Fame. That and everything it brings with it in terms of potential most succinctly sums up the situation with Ben currently. Bob Labriola has said that Ben is the tide that raises all boats and that was on display this week. We have often wondered what was possible if Ben had the time, a full tool box, decent health and focus. Now we know. Portions of Steelers Nation are just as guilty as many outsiders in underestimating Roethlisberger. His numbers on Sunday, as well as the achievement of reaching 100 wins in 150 games (matched only by Bradshaw, Montana and Brady), makes it insulting that he's constantly viewed almost as an afterthought when the subject of elite quarterbacks is on the table.
Ben's high level of performance has also kept Gradkowski on the bench and Landry Jones inactive. That's a good thing.
There was a suggestion earlier in the year that Ben, along with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, might be a 21st Century version of the Triplets (Aikman, Smith and Irvin of the 90s Cowboys). The idea seemed peculiar given the offense's state of ineptitude at the time. Less so now. Some wondered whether AB could maintain the high level of performance he achieved in 2013. No, he's gotten better. In fact, some have openly suggested that Brown might be the best receiver in the league, despite the fact that his size argues against such a thing. But his performance does not. Remember that Brown wasn't even targeted until the second quarter against the Colts. He does pretty much what he wants to out there.
That's not the end of the story of course. There were some question marks and frustration with this group at the end of the season's last quarter, leaking into the first couple of weeks of this quarter as well. But things are shaking out nicely and opponents now have much more to worry about than just AB. Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore appear to be delivering what you would hope and expect. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Brown have done about what would be expected as they bring up the rear of the group. But the big story is the emergence of Martavis Bryant. The rookie is showing that he could be the answer Ben has been seeking since Plaxico Burress left after the 2004 season.
A couple more things about this group as they reflect a pattern detectable throughout this team. With the exception of Heyward-Bey, there isn't a first- or second-rounder among the bunch. Surely a credit to Colbert and company in identifying quality talent in the middle rounds. Credit should also go to Richard Mann who, in his time here, has seemed to get the best from those under his command. And certainly also to Ben, who I believe, like other elite quarterbacks, makes the receivers better through his skills and presence. Most important is that this group is either young (Wheaton, Bryant and J. Brown are first- or second-year players) or new in the system (Moore and Heyward-Bey). Subtract AB and I'm not sure that the combined on-field experience (in the Pittsburgh system) of the other five receivers would equal that of one full season. So it's not at all unreasonable to think that there might be an upside when they get a little more experience working together as a group.
And then, of course, there's Le'Veon Bell, another player who's coming close to doing pretty much whatever he wants on the gridiron. And another one who's just now getting the equivalent of a full season under his belt. More upside. It's getting to the point with Bell where you can tell as he's being handed the ball whether or not a big run is coming. While Ben and AB have clearly been terrific, there has been some serious talk where Bell and 'MVP' have been used in the same sentence. By far the darkest moment of the Colts game was when Bell injured his ankle and it was unclear as to the severity of the injury.
His fumble in the Colts game aside, and in spite of the high marks given to Bell, the problem with LeGarrette Blount would seem to be under-utilization. He concedes nothing to Bell as an all-around back who's a competent receiver and dangerous in space. They can also give him the assignment of running back kickoffs with a straight face. The promise of Dri Archer hasn't been realized yet, but remember what I said about shortsightedness. There should be no rush to write him off.
I'm comfortable saying 'mission accomplished' with reference to the long-term mission of revitalizing the running game. But if you were expecting a return to the days where there was a top-heavy emphasis on the running game, you're going to be disappointed. It would be foolishness to think that Ben, AB and the passing game are going to be subordinated to the running game (and just as foolish to assume the opposite as well) when so much of how the game is currently structured favors a passing game with the potency that Pittsburgh possesses. Each aspect of the offense has the potential to carry the group if need be, but the situation demands that the Steelers strive for a balance.
The reasoning for the last statement was clear on a couple of plays in the Colts game. The defense was so stressed worrying about all of Ben's other weapons that it appeared they'd just forgotten about Heath Miller. I know that Heath might not be all that he used to be, but a defense simply can't do things like that, not if it expects to survive. Will Johnson reminded us that, before he was a fullback, he was a tight end. Matt Spaeth, who's doing a good, but invisible job as a blocker, hasn't been targeted yet but he can catch too.
Last, but certainly not least, there's the group making all of this production possible. Mike Munchak is, indeed, working his magic with this group. But the biggest news from this unit in the second quarter is the rehabilitation of Mike Adams. Unsolicited, Mike Tomlin went out of his way during his most-recent press conference to give props to Adams. Despite the advice of some not to believe our lying eyes, Adams had two solid performances against the Texans and Colts. He has done well enough that, in the minds of some, we have a tackle controversy concerning whether Adams should yield to Marcus Gilbert who has now recovered from concussion symptoms. Similar questions were asked earlier in the season when Cody Wallace replaced an injured Ramon Foster. What this means is that there are seven guys who can do competent work out there now. We don't know about Hubbard, but only because he hasn't had an opportunity. The loss of Weslye Johnson was disappointing, but given the health of the unit and the quality of play, realistically it's hard to imagine that he would have seen the field this year unless something terrible happened.
Pouncey and DeCastro are both playing up to expectations which is to say at a very high level. Beachum has been largely invisible which is very good news.
The offense arrived more slowly than many expected, and it cost the Steelers early. But it seemed to find its voice at the midpoint of the Houston game and has performed with a strong level of consistency since. But it must be remembered that inconsistency has been a dominant theme throughout the first half of this season, and it would be premature to assume that this trait has been completely banished form the narrative. But even so, Pittsburgh has demonstrated that it may be able to compete with any team in the league on the basis of pure offensive firepower which, given the team's tradition, is a little disorienting.
The defense started the season with lower expectations and its progress has been less mystifying than that of the offense. It also has taken the brunt of the injury hits during the season's second quarter. The fill-ins have done well for themselves and others are contributing at better-than-expected levels. Defensive turnovers were the catalyst for two of the three victories in the second quarter and a contributing factor in a third (as well as garnering a safety). But only one performance came close to full-game dominance. Big, negative plays were still too regular an occurrence. Forcing three-and-outs seems more of a treat than an expectation. Nonetheless, the trends are moving in the right direction. The group is getting healthier and more experienced. And they are becoming more physical, returning to the physical dominance that has been a hallmark of the Steeler defense over the years.
The villain of this group, if not of the whole team, is Cam Thomas. You have to go back to Sean Mahan for a free-agent pick up who has been treated with this much contempt. I'll go a little bit out on a limb and say that he may be improving after a particularly awful performance against the Browns. His work against the Texans and Colts was better, but enough in the Nation have it in for him that he's going to have to do something extraordinary to get back into their good graces. And he might not have much time.
The trials suffered by the front seven in defending the run, as well as in getting pressure on the quarterback, have forced Mitchell to accelerate the normally more-glacial pattern of development for his younger charges. As a result, Stephon Tuitt and Dan McCullers appear to be coming on, and either one or both of them will probably be making significant contributions in the season's second half. Tuitt has been less of surprise as they've been speaking of him in terms very similar to that of Ryan Shazier, as someone who could be a factor this year despite the LeBeau system's bias against inexperienced youth. But the struggles of Thomas and injuries to Steve McLendon have forced the issue with McCullers, who otherwise would probably have enjoyed a redshirt year this season. My concern from the time he was drafted was whether Big Dan could become a quality lineman or if he'd be something more akin to a carnival sideshow - a freakishly large man with little utilitarian value as a football player. The early results are promising. Now the question seems to be how good can he get and how quickly.
On the other end of the age scale is Brett Keisel. Some derided his signing, feeling that, at 36, the Beard was washed up and that his inclusion signaled a developmental failure on the part of the team. Today, Keisel is the best defensive lineman on the team and he's growing stronger as he has worked his way back into football shape.
This unit lost half of its starters when Shazier and Jones went down against Carolina. The upside is that it cleared the way for the return of James Harrison. Like Keisel, there were questions as to whether Deebo's skills had diminished to the point of being a mere shell of his former self. The conditioning challenge was steeper, but it's becoming clear that Harrison, like Keisel has more left in the tank than some imagined. There are increasing signs that he's back. His performance against the Colts, plus the dusting off of archival tape on the Monday Night football broadcast showing him jack up Colt McCoy, has fueled speculation as to what we might see when old friends come to town from Baltimore. Worilds, though not having played badly, wasn't exactly overwhelming people earlier, particularly given his compensation. But that appears to be changing, as many feel his last game might have been his best.
On the inside, Sean Spence filled in capably after Shazier went down. But Vince Williams has refused to go away. Consequently, though Shazier is returning, Tomlin is rotating four players at inside linebacker for now. Since each player brings something a little different to the table, how they're utilized will be fascinating. And it's encouraging that each is competing to the point where they're compelling the team to put them on the field beyond just special-team assignments. It also signals the 180-degree shift that has occurred with that position in only a year's time.
This may be the most complex position-group on the team. So much is going on.
Beginning with the cornerbacks, the popular notion is that Cortez Allen is useless and he must be run out of town immediately. But before you drag this young man over to the Greyhound station and deposit him on the first thing smoking out of town, let's pause for a brief history.
There is a rich history of disgruntled fans deciding that a particular player was less than useless and must be disposed of ASAP. Let's review, just using as a reference members of the Steelers' current roster.
They must go because they are busts. Cam Heyward, Lawrence Timmons, Jason Worilds, Mike Adams, Justin Brown, (On the cusp: Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas)
How did these guys ever get on the roster? William Gay, Kelvin Beachum, William Gay, Vince Williams, Willie Freakin' Gay.
Old and washed up. Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ben Roethlisberger, Will Allen, James Harrison. (On the cusp: Heath Miller)
Generally overrated; we'd be better off going in a different direction. Maurkice Pouncey, Ryan Shazier.
You'll recall the subject earlier was shortsightedness.
Brice McCain was the immediate beneficiary of Ike Taylor's injury. He made a critical pick-6 against Jacksonville when the outcome of that game was still in doubt. It was also significant that he was barely targeted at all by his former team, Houston, even when he was matched up against their best receiver. Antwon Blake looks to profit from Allen's misery. These two players were cited as part of the reason the team didn't pick a corner higher in the draft. We'll now get a chance to test out whether that move makes sense. William Gay is playing well, well enough that he doesn't get targeted much. Cortez will be demoted in the short term but will have sufficient opportunity to work his way back. Ike Taylor has returned to the practice field. How much longer before his return to the field of play?
The big story with the safeties is Mike Mitchell becoming comfortable enough in his role that he has been asserting himself during the course of this second quarter. Throughout the beginning of the season, Mitchell wasn't much of a factor. But lately he has been one of the few defensive players who has consistently been disruptive and physically aggressive. Familiarity and comfort with the system seems to have been the factor that made the difference. The question with Thomas, who has been injured, is whether his role will expand over the course of the second half of the season.
Understanding and trust, factors that can only be rushed so much, will ultimately be what determines the upper limits of their success. In the meantime, they're becoming more aggressive and, in the short term, that will have to do.
The results have been uneven. Coverage of kickoffs and punts has been unfailingly successful. But getting splash plays or flipping the field on returns has been largely a failure since opening day. Dri Archer has been taking the brunt of the blame for these problems, but Tomlin indicated that the other ten men on the kickoff-return unit deserve to share the blame as well. This assertion would be affirmed since similar problems exist for Antonio Brown and the punt-return unit. Fixing the problem will be a point of emphasis leading into the Ravens game.
I had expressed concern about Suisham during my season preview. Those concerns have proven to be unfounded up to this point. Brad Wing has performed well for the most part. But it's that one mistake which had a critical impact. It was Wing's bobble of the hold for a Suisham field-goal attempt that appeared to swing the momentum in the Cleveland game. Pittsburgh could do little right afterwards. But there are no indications that the coaching staff has lost confidence in Wing. There's no sign that the team is interested in playing musical punters this year.
In the short run, the Cleveland game has defined the second quarter of the season for some. But it might be seen differently later on in the year. Three wins out of four games played combined with a rising level of competence speaks to a successful October. The team is well-positioned and improving, with the Ravens game representing a huge opportunity to leverage the third quarter of the season. The greatest danger the Steelers face is self-sabotage. Steelers vs. Steelers. We won't have to wait long to see how far the team has progressed.