Yesterday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded from their crushing home defeat to Tampa Bay the previous week by defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars and climbing above .500 with more than three games played for the first time since 2012. Yet, by reading the post-game summary comments on BTSC, you would have thought they just lost to a Division II college team.
It has become a prevalent theme on this site to bash the Steelers for any win that isn't a blowout. And after two seasons of mediocrity, maybe this isn't all that surprising. But as the calls suggesting the team's demise continue to increase, even after victories, I've been detecting some myths that are worth clearing up.
They couldn't score against a terrible defense
Seventeen points against a team that had previously given up 38 points per game? Sure, that's a stinker. Is it a reason to jump off the bandwagon, though? Let's not forget that Jacksonville this season hired Seattle's defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to run the organization, specifically to improve that side of the ball. And while the gaudy point total suggests that it's a failed experiment so far, early returns at least gave Jacksonville fans reason for optimism.
To be second in the league with 12 sacks after four games despite playing much of them from behind - and thus facing an increased run ratio - is no small feat. Neither is ranking second in the league in solo tackles, as pro bowl linebacker (and amazingly named) Paul Posluszny does after five weeks. Add in the fact that the team has already allowed three return TDs this season, and maybe those gaudy points-against totals aren't all that bad.
Okay, so they still are. While the Jacksonville Jaguars played an impressive defensive game on Sunday, the Pittsburgh offense didn't help matters. But is that a reason to call it terrible? I don't think so. Look at Tom Brady's Patriots, who just put up 43 points on what had been the best defense in the league. The week before? Only 14 points against the Chiefs. Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos broke all kinds of offensive records last year, but only scored 20 in a losing effort against a San Diego defense that finished the year 23rd in yards allowed and dead last in defensive DVOA. Every now and then, good and even great offenses lay an egg. That doesn't suddenly make them terrible. Instead of worrying that this may suddenly become a trend, we should be happy that it came in a winning effort.
The offensive play-calling is terrible
Of course, not everybody shares my sentiments. 'Todd Haley Sucks' was once again a common theme in the post-game comments. The run-pass ratio was heavily focused toward the latter, the empty backfield resulted in a fumble, and who calls those darned bubble screens, anyways?
Little do we remember that prior to the season, everyone acknowledged the necessity of Ben having a great year in order for this team to do well. All that's happened since is evidence of his ever-growing chemistry with Antonio Brown, the emergence of Marcus Wheaton along with our first true pass-catching RB since Mewelde Moore, and the resurfacing of Heath. Is it a wonder that Haley and Ben want to utilize these weapons? Granted, LeVeon Bell has also shown just how good he can be running the ball, but he was coming off an ordinary performance against the Buccaneers. I don't think a game plan looking to attack a defense through the air that had been much worse against the pass than against the run was a bad one.
Maybe you're one of the people that just hates the empty backfield. In that case, I don't blame you - it's been a thorn in my Steelers fandom side for years. Surprisingly, it's more effective than I thought. Unfortunately, I don't have the advanced stats to back this up, though I'm sure they're available somewhere. But in the Week 3 win over Carolina, the announcers discussed specifically how the empty backfield is part of Haley's strategy to get the ball out of Ben's hands quickly. In other words, it's a far cry from Arians' big-play empty backfield that resulted in so many sacks and frustration. Considering that the fumble came after more than four seconds of Ben holding onto the ball, I think it's safe to say it was an outlier.
Oh, and then there's the bubble screen, much hated, because they look so bad every time they're broken up. The problem is, no one remembers when they're working, even though that happens much more often. Why? Because even when they work, they often 'only' go for 5-8 yards. That's bad for a pass, right? Not when you figure out that they're really "long handoffs," to quote Roethlisberger. It's a play that's been prevalent through both the Arians and Haley offenses: no matter which play Ben runs, he has the option to check to a bubble screen if he sees the defensive back giving a cushion to the WR. In this game, alone, you saw that happening with Brown and Archer, while Wheaton has also been a happy recipient a couple of times this season. And let's not forget how beautiful a bubble screen run behind Heath Miller can be.
This didn't happen when we were good.
Finally, here's my favorite of the negative arguments. "We almost let a bad team beat us! That means we're bad too!" If you're referring to last week's loss, you're right - when the Steelers went to the Super Bowl in 2005, 2008 and 2010, they didn't lose against bad teams. They sandwiched in some heartbreaking losses to terrible teams in 2006 and 2009, but we all know those seasons weren't successful.
What they have done, though, even in their best years, is play down to their opposition the way they did on Sunday against Jacksonville. In 2005, they beat the Ravens 20-19, a team that would finish 6-10 that year. In 2008, they beat Cleveland (who would finish 4-12) 10-6 and Jacksonville (who would finish 5-11) 26-21 on a last-second Hines Ward TD. In 2010, it was 23-22 against Miami (who would finish 7-9), 27-21 against a 4-12 Cincinnati team that had the ball on the Pitt 5 in the final seconds, and 19-16 in overtime against an eventual 4-12 Buffalo.
All of those games had fans jumping for the life rafts. But guess what? Each of those seasons ended with an appearance in the Super Bowl.
None of this is to say that there's no cause for worry about this team, which has spoiled us so much with winning football during the last 10+ years. But a win, even over one of the worst teams in the league, is maybe - just maybe - not the right time to jump on the life rafts. Bring on Cleveland!