clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

New, comments

It's a 5-star matchup because the Steelers are in it

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Special announcement for Washington DC area BTSCers

If you're a regular in these parts, then you know Homer J is one of the wiser heads in this community. He came up with a suggestion at the conclusion of the Chiefs game last Sunday. How about putting out a call to all those in the BTSC community that reside in or near DC Metro and take in the season finale with the Bengals together. So if you're reading this and are part of the Steelers Nation contingent living in or near this area, consider this your invitation to join Homer, PaVaSteelers, William Steinbach and myself at the Tortoise and Hare Bar in Arlington, VA. There will also be another familiar front-page contributor to the site coming down from Pittsburgh to be part of the evening. If you think you might want to join us, here are a couple of tips. Plan on arriving early, as the place hasn't failed to be packed each time we've attended. We can try to hold some space, but it would be best if you contacted one of us in advance so we'll know to expect you. We're looking forward to capping the regular season and continuing our holiday celebration by watching the Steelers clinch the division. We hope some of you can join us.

The night before Christmas

Even though it's a few days after the fact, if you haven't done so already Dick LeBeau's rendering of this classic is a must for Steelers fans. Enjoy.

A 5-Star matchup

"Its a 5-star matchup because we're in it."

During the championship run of 2008, James Farrior often was recorded saying these words inspired by head coach Mike Tomlin. The notion that any game would be a 5-star matchup simply because the Pittsburgh Steelers participated in it represents as good an explanation as any for why the Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati clash will be the featured prime- time game this Sunday.

The choice might seem peculiar if you take to heart the network parameters supposedly guiding their decision-making. Three games, Carolina vs. Atlanta, Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh, and Detroit vs. Green Bay, were under consideration to be flexed. Top priority would be a game(s) where a playoff spot was at stake. In this respect, only the Panthers/Falcons game qualifies, although when the decision was made, it was possible in theory that this might have been an elimination game for the Bengals. The winner goes on to represent the NFC South, while the loser licks its wounds and begins preparations for free-agency and the draft. The other four teams are in but they're still struggling for division titles and seeding. So why select Pittsburgh for the marquee slot? The most cynical response is money. Steelers Nation doesn't just travel well in enemy stadiums but in television ratings as well. Would anyone be surprised if this game ends up being one of the higher-rated clashes of the season? What makes this a little bit more impressive is that Green Bay, another popular team with a loyal fan base, is also part of the equation.

You don't need to have a rooting interest for or against the Steelers to be intrigued by this team. History and attitude are usually enough to make watching Pittsburgh a satisfying experience. But in addition, the Killer Bees are the kinds of players that make people tune-in simply to witness their performance art. And then there's the mayhem, a team characteristic that still manages to persist, even though the league is hell bent on killing it. Not too many Steelers/Bengals tilts have lacked at least one moment when a Steeler brutalizes a Bengals opponent in a rather humiliating way. Think Colon/Burfict, or Garvin/Huber. But my all-time-favorite moment is in the waning moments of the 2005 playoff game played in Paul Brown Stadium. Joey Porter is on the sideline taking oxygen:

"I'm tired. I'm so tired of whipping your ass!"

Backlash

You have to go back a few years to find the last time when things seemed so upbeat at this time of the year. Events have conspired in such a manner that there exists a very pleasant marriage of relatively low expectations (by Steelers Nation standards) combined with high short-term potential and even higher long-term promise. The next loss, whenever it comes, will be disappointing of course, but less confusing and, for all but the most short-sighted, not any cause for despair.

It's almost always ill-advised to pass judgment on a season or a team before everything has played out. This was dramatically true of the 2013 team, but far too many didn't absorb the lesson and, as Mike Tomlin is wont to say, lived in their fears big time. Some may be tempted to believe that something miraculous has occurred when, in fact, what has happened is, more or less, exactly what experienced observers have been saying for months; that this team would struggle early, but then would get better later on, especially the defense. The only question being when, not if things came together. Assuming of course that no one panicked. To be sure, we all would have felt better about things if the NFC South losses had occurred against Carolina and Atlanta on the road, as opposed to Tampa and New Orleans at home. Falling to, say, Houston, instead of the Jets. And the Ohio beat-down might have been expected to come at the hands of the Bengals in Cincinnati, rather than being delivered by the Browns in Cleveland. Looking back with something closer to 20/20 hindsight, most of these problems are attributable to Steelers beating Steelers. The young players grew up and got better, newcomers acclimated, veterans rounded into optimum condition, penalties and turnovers went down and group cohesion went up. Ta-Da! There were one or two cockeyed optimists that felt 12-4 was doable, but most would have been delighted with 10-6, which is precisely what we'll have to 'settle' for if they lose their last game. And 11-5 with a division title is a little bit more than a mere possibility.

Certain issues are now settled. This team is neither in decline nor mired in a perpetual state of mediocrity. The foundation of its talent is strong and solid. Some pieces will need to added, of course, but much will also come by way of the ongoing development of players who already are here. Executive and staff leadership is not old and out of touch (LeBeau), incompetent (Colbert and Haley) or fraudulent (Tomlin). To the contrary, a backlash is in progress against those who have been pushing the line of organizational dysfunction for the past few seasons. The push-back is coming in the form of those who are not content simply to refute (be sure to check the comments section on this one) the negative critiques, but to take things further and assert that the Steelers' coaches and front office aren't merely competent, but first rate as well.

For all the criticisms of Mike Tomlin, the undeniable truth is that he is one of the top handful of coaches in the NFL. It's a bottom-line business, and Tomlin's bottom line reads like this: .638 winning percentage (fifth among active coaches and just ahead of Curly Lambeau and some guy named Bill Cowher on the all-time list), two AFC titles, one Super Bowl title, zero losing seasons

-Joe Starkey

This isn't to say that negative and (to be honest) panicked feelings and beliefs haven't been embraced by many, if not most fans over the past few months. But embedded within those understandable and legitimate frustrations have been those who have been ruled by either mind-numbing ignorance or a disturbing level of malice. The inconsistent play of the team itself created an unintended semblance of complicity with the darker elements in our midst. Now, because of the team's ongoing development, various voices, from the media to team alumni to fans, are asserting themselves and speaking in support of the current direction of the team. But this doesn't mean the 'debates' are over. If only stupidity and hate were so easily thwarted. It does mean, however, that who's on the offensive and the defensive has flipped in a way that I believe is decisive.

As Neal Coolong has attempted to explain in a number of ways, if you're a Steelers fan this is the beginning of good times. If the team is indeed on the upswing (and it's becoming increasingly hard to argue against that notion), then two 8-8 seasons is a remarkably mild penance to pay for the inevitable need to retool and rebuild. Pittsburgh will be playing in January regardless of what happens on Sunday. And one only needs to reference the history of the Steelers franchise to understand that seeding in this tournament can quickly be rendered meaningless. Pittsburgh has failed as the top seed and succeeded as the bottom seed. So, not only is it possible that this team could get hot and make it to Arizona. One certainty is that, absent catastrophic injury to key personnel, the team that takes the field for the remainder of the 2014 season will likely be the weakest team that Pittsburgh will put forward for years to come.

Awards season

Fans, the media and their peers let their feelings be known as to who stood out as performers this season on both a team and national level.

MVP

The team MVP award was particularly significant given the number of legitimately worthy candidates. That Le'Veon Bell won was not a surprise, in that he was considered a front-runner. But the fact that he won in what Bob Labriola described as a landslide, even when players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were enjoying career seasons, was noteworthy.

Pro Bowl selections

Five Steelers made it onto the Pro Bowl roster. The Big Three of Ben, AB and Bell couldn't be viewed as a surprise, nor could the selection of Maurkice Pouncey, despite those who believe him to be overrated. The big news was the first-time selection of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, a much deserved honor, but also deserved in a number of previous years in which it did not materialize. Always good to see justice served from time to time.

This isn't to say that there weren't disappointments. Perhaps the most unjust snub might be that of defensive end Cameron Heyward. How much of that is due to institutional bias against 3-4 defensive ends remains an open question. Placekicker Shaun Suisham is also considered a player who's performing well but has been overlooked. It'll be hard to believe that much time will pass before questions are asked about David DeCastro if he fails to make the squad over time. If Martavis Bryant and Stephon Tuitt keep improving at their current rates, they also could find themselves in the conversation in the coming years.

Chief and Greene awards

At least Heyward doesn't go home empty-handed as he was the recipient of the Chief Award given to the player most cooperative with the media. Bryant won the Joe Greene Rookie Of the Year.

Kansas City

The theory is that this is the most joyous time of the year. That's not true all the time for everybody but, if you weren't experiencing peace and joy during the past week, you can't blame the Steelers. Over the past couple of years, fans have had to content themselves with the hope that a playoff berth was still a possibility. This was no small thing last year, given the fact that the team began the season at 0-4.

Heading into their showdown with the Chiefs, there were still question marks surrounding the Pittsburgh team despite two quality showings against the Bengals and the Falcons on the road. Chief (no pun intended) among them was whether this team could keep fate within its own hands and step decisively into the playoffs, as opposed to backing in. Could they put together a third high-level winning performance in a row for the second time this season, thus demonstrating that their inconsistencies were behind them and they were ready to play their best ball? Pittsburgh answered these questions largely in the affirmative, providing Steelers Nation with a nice Christmas present: January football.

But that wasn't all. It was generally believed that this game would have to be won by the Steelers' offense. Not much was expected from the defense except perhaps to not give up cheap touchdowns and to slow KC's offense sufficiently so that, if necessary, the Pittsburgh O could prevail in a shootout. Instead, the defense showed that it was getting healthy and growing up. LeBeau's unit kept the Chiefs out of the end zone and, if not for a ridiculous taunting call against William Gay, they would have held the Chiefs to under ten points for the game. The work of the front-seven was particularly impressive and James Harrison along with Heyward garnered top PFF scores.

In addition to the upgrade in defensive play, a larger question being asked concerns the need to be able to prevail in playoff football, if a team possesses a high-powered offense in tandem with a so-so defense.

The offense showed for the second week that defenses selling out to stop Bell, though understandable, is not an effective deterrent. Heath Miller was one of the bigger beneficiaries and Bell and AB managed scores anyway, even though they were of the less-spectacular variety. Special teams, though not able to add to the team's firepower, were able to fulfill their mission to, at minimum, keep a lid on things and not permit splash plays by the opponent.

Injury report

We didn't get through the season completely unscathed but, all things considered, it was much better than in previous years. There was a brief scare during the Chiefs game involving Ben, but a bullet was dodged. The entire team was available for practice on Wednesday and there's a chance of them taking the field on Sunday fully loaded (minus Allen and Keisel on IR). This constitutes another victory for Art Rooney II, who, as you may recall, stated that the team had to do something to reduce its susceptibility to injury.

Haley

The anti-Haley movements have ground to a halt. Not only is the team's offense breaking franchise records and ranking among the league leaders, Haley is being hailed for his tactical decisions and putting personnel into positions to be successful. In other words, it's difficult to talk about so many players doing so well both individually and collectively without some credit accruing to the offensive coordinator. In particular, as Bell has pointed out, the problem facing opposing defensive coordinators is that, though certain aspects of the offense may be slowed and even stopped via game planning, it doesn't so much derail the offense as it just becomes a matter of picking your poison.

The Big Three

Amplifying on one of the points, Ben, Bell and Brown set yet another league record.

Foster and Gay

The left offensive guard, and the cornerback were both flagged for disorderly conduct last week. Ramon Foster earned his penalty when he got into a fight during a special-teams play. Gay's alleged transgression was more controversial, so much so that it was even more upsetting than the one involving Jason Worilds the previous week. Gay was penalized for taunting, even though no Chiefs player was within a dozen yards. Teammates, fans and even Mike Tomlin were furious over the call. And while there have been no explanations either demanded or volunteered, it's fair to say that the absence of any fine assessed to Gay is statement enough. Foster was fined for the fight. And in what I consider surprising, the league also fined Vance Walker for his leg-whip on Ben.

Before leaving the subject of Foster, it's worth noting this piece done about his recently deceased mother. Not much attention was given to this because of the timing of the death, a couple of days before the beginning of training camp. It's an affecting article and familiar to all who cope with the loss of a parent during the holiday season.

The rookies

The issues brought to light by Neal in this piece probably need to be repeated on a regular basis. One of the reasons the Steelers manage to thrive so consistently is that they have become, as an organization, masters in the development of talent. Two things that cannot be emphasized enough. First, players develop at different rates. Consider two players that received awards this week. It took Martavis Bryant only a few weeks into his rookie season to become a significant contributor to the Steelers offense. Cam Heyward, on the other hand, took a few years to reach this point. Second, more often than not, development may take longer than we would like. Please keep that in mind when tempted to show impatience concerning Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones

Hats and t-shirts

That's what the Steelers will be playing for this Sunday; the division title and the hats and t-shirts that come as part of this accomplishment. For a large number of players on the roster, this would be a first-time achievement.

Andy Russell

The former Pro Bowl outside linebacker and team captain is raising awareness of the educational needs of homeless children. Him bringing to light that families currently are living in tents in the forests around the Pittsburgh area brings into focus the changed nature of our world.

Alajandro Villanueva

The practice-squad tackle is learning that the Steeler Way is more than just about the football.

The Grantland All Pro Team

Three Steelers make Bill Barnwell's 2014 first-team All Pro squad. See who they are here.

Who wins on Week 17

SI.com's picks for this week's game.

Grantland's gambling pick for who wins the Super Bowl

Bill Simmons makes his pick for who will win the Super Bowl. Depending on the nature of your superstitions, you'll either love or hate his selection.

Not their life's work

The Steelers sing Christmas carols. Someone please warn Rebecca Rollett, as she might be in need of therapy if she checks this out.

Happy New Year

Best wishes for a prosperous 2015 to all who read the Checkdown, along with the hope that a Steelers' AFC North crown is part of your celebrations this week.