Coaching and front office were covered in Part One. But where do things stand with the players as we go into the last lap of the 2014 regular season?
The only consistent thing about the Steelers has been their inconsistency. And so, one game into the fourth quarter of the 2014 season, and with what would seem to be three very winnable games ahead, Steelers Nation teeters between hopeful anticipation and dread. Is it possible that they could eviscerate the Bengals again, yet lose to the Falcons and/or the Chiefs? Yes. Absolutely. Win all three. Lose all three. Or any combination you can think of, all possible. There are now four clear possibilities going forward: 1.) Celebrate the New Year laughing at Cincinnati as AFC North Champions. 2.) A somewhat more subdued celebration as Pittsburgh falls short of the division but makes the playoffs as a wildcard. 3.) Miss the playoffs amid clamoring for the Steelers' version of the Red Wedding. 4.) Win the division or wildcard and still call for a bloodletting because that's just how some of us roll.
I sang the praises of Tomlin and Colbert last time. Let's linger on coaching a while longer and talk about offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Let's give the Post-Gazette's Bob Smizik the floor.
Any fair person who has criticized him in the past would have to acknowledge Haley deserves some of the credit for the overall improvement of the team and the specific improvement of individual players.
Even after the Steelers scored 42 against the Bengals, there were some negative comments about his play-calling. There’s no kind way to put this, but most fans and media have no way of evaluating play-calling and those who think they can by watching on television or sitting in the stands do not understand the game.
The most brilliantly conceived play can be undone by just one player botching his assignment. There is no play ever devised that works without execution. And even if all assignments are executed well, a superior defensive performance can still blow up the best-called play.
There are so many unknowns that it is impossible to evaluate each play in terms of whether it was smartly called.
So judge Haley on his play-calling if you wish, but know this: You probably don’t know what you’re talking about. The mere fact the Steelers are averaging 6.2 yards per play would indicate that criticism of Haley is a bit over the top,
The running game
Perhaps all you need to know about Le'Veon Bell at this time is that people are talking about him and Walter Peyton in the same sentence and no one is rolling their eyes. A year ago it was beginning to sink in that, if he could remain healthy, Bell could develop into a really good back. Nothing happened during the first half of this season to make anyone think otherwise. But it was in the third quarter that Bell exploded and the full measure of what he could be became discernible to everyone. With his three consecutive 200 yard+ performances, he not only established himself as at least the equal of Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but as amazing as it may sound, it's possible that he will eventually be the headliner of the trio.
A couple of things are becoming certain. Bell isn't going to be a Willie Parker/Barry Foster/Merrill Hoge type of back, as impressive as those runners were. We are talking about an emerging superstar in this league. The proper comparisons would be more in line with Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, and with his robust skill set, he may potentially be a step above those two as well. And though he went about it completely wrong, LeGarrette Blount was right in that, if he was hoping to for a more substantial share of the running load, Pittsburgh isn't the place for him. It still remains to be seen if Dri Archer is a failed experiment or just a slow-developing story that needs more time. The question can be entertained because for now he, like Blount is irrelevant, other than to provide a few necessary snaps worth of relief if Bell needs to catch his breath.
Some believed that the intention of attempting to reassert a dominant rushing attack in this era would be a fool's errand. But what has been established, particularly in the Tennessee and Cincinnati games, is that the Steelers now have the capacity to generate a reliable, controlling running game. For Art Rooney II, mission accomplished.
Remember Antonio Brown? One of the exceptions to the theme of inconsistency has been the work of AB who continues to break and challenge records weekly. Sometimes the shadow side of consistency is starting to take things for granted. This may be the case with Brown, whose only problems might be the hiccups of his quarterback and the now obvious fact that Bell needs and deserves the ball a lot. There is also the matter that he's not the only guy who can catch and run out there. Matt Spaeth doesn't get many targets, but he has caught every single pass thrown to him, and he is at the absolute bottom of the food chain.
The receivers group has been one of the more obvious places where you can see the evolution of roles and the pecking order over the course of a season. Justin Brown, who figured more prominently in the season's first quarter, is now nowhere to be found. Heyward-Bey's limited contributions are now focused mainly on special teams. Will Johnson's most valuable input is road-grading for Bell. Lance Moore is contributing, but much, much less than was assumed when he joined the team in the spring. On the other hand, you will recall that Martavis Bryant didn't have a helmet for much of the early portion of the season. Markus Wheaton, who slumped a bit in the second quarter, has reasserted himself. These two along with Brown appear to be the core group going forward for the rest of this season and probably the foreseeable future.
Oh, and did we forget Heath Miller?
By 'quarterback' we mean Ben. Particularly when compared to his off-the-charts second quarter, the third quarter was, on balance, not just disappointing, but harmful to the team. There was an excuse for his poor performance against the Saints, but not so much with the Jets. And while the supporting cast (including the defense) is beginning to figure it out and getting better, they're not good enough yet to carry him when he falters. There's another piece of good news. Just as Bell's emergence signals the achievement of a key objective, it's important to note that, for the second year running, Ben enters the last portion of the season upright, clean and, that blip with the wrist aside, healthy. And if he's on top of his game and healthy, Ben is capable of being the winning difference in any game he's a part of. Do you want to meet this guy in the playoffs? Mission Accomplished II.
It's considered a truism that there is often a lag between when a change occurs and it's recognized. Well, if you were wondering when that great Munchak-led offensive line was going to come rolling down the tracks, too late. That train has already arrived. Bell is good, but he ain't that good. What was frustrating about Ben is that, in the past, if he wasn't playing so well you could point to the fact that he was being harried and beaten. Not so much now. Of course, some will want to make much of the few times when the defense does get to him but, as they say, they're getting paid too. And Ben will still on occasion maddeningly sit in that pocket reading the paper, checking his phone, whatever. Taking the Bengals game as an example, lets talk about what we didn't see. We didn't see Beachum (allegedly too small) or Adams (allegedly incompetent). Which is to say they were doing their jobs. Pouncey and DeCastro (the Christmas pony) are performing at precisely the expected levels, that is, quite high. Say what you want about the star power at the skill positions, what's making this offense truly frightening is that the O-line has gone from being the dysfunctional problem children to the rock upon which the next Steeler dynasty may be built.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the blocking contributions of Johnson, Miller and Spaeth. And there is a bonus. My friend Rick 'Doc' Walker was a tight end who was given the honor of being named a member of Joe Bugel's Hogs, the famous offensive line of the 80s Washington Redskins. I believe that Le'Veon Bell has earned the right to be in the conversation as a blocker if anyone is ever prescient enough to give this group a name.
Summary: Earlier this year when the talk began about there being a Big-Three of Ben, Brown and Bell that could be viewed in a similar light as the big three of Troy Aikman, Emmett Smith and Michael Irving, I thought that was a bit over the top. After all, you're talking about three Hall of Famers who led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships. But you know what? This group may have the potential to be better. And one more thing. We make much of the three 'Bs'. Admittedly it's early, but what if what we are really talking about are the four 'Bs' (Bryant). I think the frustration will be similar to that which we experienced with the offensive line last season. We will run out of game opportunities before their potential fully manifests, leaving us impatiently waiting for 2015. This has the makings of a truly, truly great offense barring catastrophic injury. The odds are against it fully coming into its own in 2014. But we've already had and will continue to get glimpses. Whether it will be enough to carry Pittsburgh into the playoffs and beyond remains to be seen.
There is much promise here as well. But the defense is generally younger, less experienced and has been less fortunate in the injury department when compared to the offense. And defense is ensemble work where ( as Smizik spoke of so well in relation to the execution of an offensive play) a misstep by one person can bring down the entire house of cards. Especially in the LeBeau defense. The defense has been playing better throughout the third quarter. Though they have suffered some gashes on long passing plays, they have made significant strides in controlling the more demoralizing consequences of not being able to stop the run. But the key issue has been managing injuries.
The combination of Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel was pretty formidable. Problem is we don't have it anymore. Even before the loss of Keisel, it has been difficult to get the whole group on the field due to the chronic shoulder concerns of McLendon. His presence against the Bengals and the reports that there was no setback is encouraging. Daniel McCullers may be a force someday and, while he wasn't overwhelmed by his first starting assignment, at this stage he's a project. Cam Thomas? The news on Stephon Tuitt is very promising at this point, and its possible that he will eventually be the best of the bunch. But whether he will arrive in time help make this season special is the question. Somethings you just can't microwave. And there's no help coming from below as Nick Williams and Josh Mauro were pilfered from the practice squad.
Having two first-round draft picks out due to injury cannot be considered a good thing. Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier played no part in the third quarter, but both returned in Cincinnati. Jones looked good in limited action and more importantly suffered no setbacks, meaning he will be available for the stretch run. On the other hand, Shazier didn't play for the best possible reason given the circumstances; the high quality of play by Sean Spence and Vince Williams. James Harrison, unexpectedly I think, help carry this unit with a very high level of play throughout the third stanza. Arthur Moats has filled in nicely. Lawrence Timmons is a legitimate candidate for the Pro Bowl. If there has been an underachiever here it might be Jason Worilds, but that would be in a relative sense given his supposed stature and compensation. Terence Garvin has no hope of seeing the field beyond special teams. Due to injury and relative lack of experience, the quartet of Jones, Shazier, Spence and Williams are probably a year away from their best work. The now-redundant questions being how much can they give for the remainder of the season and will it be enough. In the meantime, don't get so caught-up in the drama to not fully appreciate the Deebo bonus we get to experience for the rest of this year.
The mantle of dysfunctional problem child has been transfered from the O-line to the defensive secondary. And the root of their problems has been similar, with injuries at the core. My take on this group is more charitable than some, though the causes of their difficulties at this point are not really relevant to the consequences. Cortez Allen became psychologically unavailable before he became the second player lost for the season. At the moment, it's academic as to whether Ike Taylor is victimized by the effect of his immediate injuries or the decline due to age. Antwon Blake and Brice McCain are doing fine for second-line players, however they are now having to deal with first-line responsibilities. Mike Mitchell and Troy Polamalu have not meshed well yet to the detriment of both. There have been unfavorable comparisons made between Mitchell and Ryan Clark, but it should be remembered that Clark joined the Steelers after having complemented a special player similar to Troy in the late Sean Taylor. Forcing the oft-injured Shamarko Thomas into this may seem sensible but might not be helpful to anyone at this time. It certainly doesn't mean there is anything wrong with Thomas.
Haven't really hurt. Haven't really helped beyond the still solid contributions of Suisham. A few positive splash-plays could make a difference, but for now we can settle for a lack of negative splash-plays that would absolutely cripple this team.
The thing with this team is that they handily beat the one team in the last quarter (the Ravens) that you might have penciled in as a loss. As well as the most probable loss for the this final quarter (the Bengals at Cincinnati). That's the flip side of things. They are both under- and over-achieving. The question is when, as opposed to if, they turn the corner. 2014 or beyond?