During the Steelers' illustrious performance in Charlotte on Sunday Night Football's national stage, we found a multitude of reasons to believe the 2014 season might surpass the dreary forecasts made by pundits and fans alike after the Black and Gold stumbled badly in Week 2. While the main storyline in the Steelers vs. Panthers game was the emergence of a team clearly having greater potential than many suspected, we also saw the beginning of a parallel and equally intriguing sub-plot which might be of more lasting value to the team.
As the direct result of an outbreak of what Coach Tomlin dubs "significant injuries" sending Ike Taylor, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones to the sidelines for periods still not precisely known, Steelers Nation got its first extended look at some key backup players within the context of a crucial game situation. Supporting actors Cody Wallace, Sean Spence, Arthur Moats, Shamarko Thomas and Antwon Blake were pressed into service well before most of them had anticipated. The results generally were favorable despite the expected learning curve for players breaking into NFL starting roles for the first time in their careers.
In contrast to the team's slow (some say sluggish) transition which has rankled many fans for the past two seasons, the Carolina game was remarkable precisely because it brought this transition to life in real time and right before our eyes. When everyone is healthy and you don't need to make substitutions, it's too easy for a head coach to remain somewhat detached from how his second- or third-string players might perform under the pressures of a regular-season game. Keeping players on the bench to address just-in-case scenarios might make a coach feel more secure, but it rarely does anything constructive for players who need to hone their skills by matching up against the best competition.
But in the wake of last Sunday night's rash of key injuries on the defensive unit, the Steelers are now in the proverbial position of being About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Coach Tomlin and his staff no longer have the luxury of keeping young players or other backups on the bench or special teams. It's sink-or-swim now for players having scant NFL experience such as Sean Spence, Antwon Blake, Shamarko Thomas and Terence Garvin. For at least the next several weeks, each of these men will relish the rare opportunity to get substantial snaps in games that count. They'll also get the chance to prove they deserve to stay in the starting lineup regardless of subsequent changes in the Steelers' injury situation.
This is the stuff of any number of great stories about guys who might have been overlooked, but who stepped forward in crucial game situations to stake their claims. It's the tale of James Harrison and Rocky Bleier, to name only a pair of the players featured in the NFL's Cinderella stories. So even though the Black and Gold faces off against one of the league's bottom-dwellers when the Tampa Bay Bucs come to town for a Sunday showdown, the injection of new faces into the starting lineup, including the return of one old, familiar face, appears likely to help this team maintain an upward trajectory following some disappointments in Weeks 1 and 2. It'll be exciting for Steelers fans to watch these substitute players making their first big-time NFL plays, even as they'll also make some mistakes adapting to the faster pace and higher talent level of pro football.
As for the oft-maligned Steelers' front office, fans will have a prime opportunity to witness in real time exactly what Kevin Colbert and company were thinking when they drafted or otherwise acquired these players. We've already seen a pretty solid return-on-investment in the form of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount (known affectionately to fans as Cheech and Chong). We've also seen some very promising play from wide receiver Marcus Wheaton, in addition to burgeoning potential evident in the play of Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones before injuries forced them to the sidelines.
But on Sunday at Heinz Field we're going to get our first extended look at some of the "other guys," including perhaps the fleet-footed Dri Archer. Might we see one or two of this group step up before the home crowd to seize that special moment when a successful NFL career is born? If so, then the lengthy transition anticipated following the Steelers' Week 2 debacle in Baltimore might suddenly appear to be moving onto a faster track.