December 9, 2012
There is significance to that date which I'll get to in a moment. Isn't it nice to spend a week in some place other than Football Hell? As most of you know, I'm part of the Pittsburgh Diaspora that resides in the Washington DC area. As I write, this region is broiling in one of the lower levels of that Hell, being the latest victims of Thursday Night prime time NFL football.
To summarize: The Washington team was 'it' to be utterly humiliated on a Thursday night, with the particularly discouraging twist that they couldn't fall back on the excuse that they had to travel on a short week. Their owner continues to be brazenly incompetent. There is a quarterback controversy that's devolving into a race to the bottom. The offensive line is devoid of talent, the defensive secondary is old and incapable. There's also the matter of the team name. And in the midst of more than a generation of futility there is no hope.
Things are much better in Pittsburgh. And for the first time in a relatively long period, I really don't have to craft an argument to persuade the reader of that fact.
December 9, 2012
That was the last time the Steelers had a winning record in season. This is one of a number of reasons why the win in Charlotte on Sunday night has seemed somewhat outsized for a September football game. There are others that I'll get to in a moment, but first, before some of you succumb to a heart condition, a necessary disclaimer.
The Browns game set a tone for the 2014 season. Specifically, it conditioned us to the idea that a moment of soaring football artistry could be rapidly followed by mind-numbing failure. That, along with the normal amount of fear and paranoia rattling around in some darkened corner of the collective minds of Steelers Nation as we're faced with the possibility of not one, but two 'trap' games against winless teams from Florida. A loss, and let's be honest, even a particularly lackluster win could find us back in Hell, being marinated and sauteed along with the fans of Washington, San Francisco, Green Bay, Minnesota and the list goes on.
But a big part of the beauty of this win is that it was so complete and impressive that in one stroke demons were exorcised and caution thrown to the wind. We know the part about the demons is a temporary condition. If the team doesn't stumble on their own, the hope engendered by mounting success will drive some to despair out of fear of a monumental disappointment looming somewhere beyond the horizon. For the present moment at least, however, it has been nice to get out of that awful place where we were last week when some actually believed that the team-building had failed and the season was over.
The victory was so thorough that those of a pessimistic or fatalistic bent couldn't muster a coherent response, at least for the moment. Gary Dulac's report card for the game gave the team an A+. Of the different team groupings, only the defensive secondary got a grade lower than an 'A', and a B- is far from terrible. Given the stage, the reputation of the opponent and the manner in which the outcome was achieved, it was a game-changer in the perceptions of what those both inside and outside of Steelers Nation see as possible for this team going forward.
Are there reasons for caution? Absolutely. I outlined more thoroughly last week that the up-and-down nature of team performances early in the season hasn't been unique to Pittsburgh. Because of changes in practice patterns resulting from the CBA, the identity of many teams around the league has been in a state of flux during the course of these first few weeks, meaning that the nature of football that will be on display at Heinz Field on Sunday is unclear at best.
On the other hand, to say that this win marks a return to Steelers football actually understates the case. Even at its best, Steelers football has rarely been this good, as may be seen by team records from as far back as more than forty years ago that fell in the wake of this victory. This is a different animal. A realization made more exciting by the fact that no one believes this team is anywhere even close to realizing its potential. Nor is it a matter of the game being an anomaly in that it followed what was expected as part of a best-case scenario. No one was playing outside of the parameters of what has been projected as their capabilities, meaning that, barring factors such as injury, more of the same and even better is a reasonable expectation for the future. The mystery being when such performances might be consistently on display.
Perhaps one of the best ways of putting this game into perspective is viewing how well things turned out with the absolute worst thing that happened Sunday.
Initially it seemed clear that our luck ran out on the injury front as three defensive starters went down. Or did it? In each case the results were less dire than feared in the early hours. Looking at the big picture, none are ruled out for the season. It's fair to say, given the schedule, that they will be out when they're needed the least and will be available at the time of the year when they're needed the most. Their replacements are viewed as capable for the most part and will benefit themselves and the team greatly with the work they'll get during the coming weeks, resulting in a deeper roster in terms of experience come December.
The obituaries for Ike Taylor's career appear to be slightly premature. Despite the grotesque nature of the injury he suffered, it's likely he will play again this season. His replacement, William Gay, just happens to be the most competent corner on the team at the moment. The biggest question mark and concern is about who will be the next player up in that group and whether they'll be up to the task. We will now be subjected to a real test of the belief that the strategy of addressing the secondary needs through the elevation of special teams players (Blake) and picking up other veterans off the street (McCain and Webb) can bear appropriate fruit.
Ryan Shazier suffered the least-severe injury but may be of greatest concern because of questions raised as to how he might respond, given the nature of his athleticism and the fact that this occurred at a time when he hasn't been as fully acclimated to the realities of the professional game as one would prefer. The encouraging thing about Jarvis Jones was that he had clearly shown before he went down that he was successfully making the leap to a much higher level of play. Both he and the fans will be able to find comfort in that knowledge and patiently await his return.
And there's more. Look at the opportunities that these injuries opened up.
Count me among those who had been hoping that Harrison would receive one more shot to play for the Black and Gold. Such a thing seemed reasonable several months ago. It wasn't clear that they could retain Jason Worilds or whether his 2013 performance was a contract-year mirage. There was nervousness about the development of Jarvis Jones and the second-year development of Vince Williams and Terence Garvin. Would the team have the money or luck to find someone on the veteran free-agent market (Arthur Moats and Vic S'oto) who could fit in, strike gold in the draft (Shazier) and find some promising development prospects among UDFAs (Howard Jones and Dan Moll)? And, of course, you had to anticipate injuries. It had been the norm. And no way, sentiment aside, do you count on Sean Spence being there.
But that best-case scenario played out and, because of that, adding Harrison made no sense. So, sadly, there was an anticlimactic retirement ceremony. A very bland ending for such an exciting and inspirational career.
And now he's back. And the fun thing about it if you're a fan is that it both amplifies and diminishes the horse-race aspect of the season. Yes, wouldn't it be great if Deebo, along with fellow geriatrics Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, and a severely wounded Ike Taylor lead a group of young puppies to glory and an improbable seventh Lombardi Trophy?Wouldn't you want the movie rights to that one? (And we've got the people in house to make that happen). On the other hand, given the second chance to see him play one more time, there will be joy enough in just taking each game for what it is without having to infuse extra meaning into the pure enjoyment of watching the stuff of legends ply their craft for one more season. We can't lose really.
This amazing story has been muted somewhat because of the rise of Shazier. The upside of the first-rounder's injury is that it has allowed Spence to have a more-than-deserved moment in the sun in front of the home crowd. Also there's the opportunity to demonstrate that he may be much more than just a utility player in the grand scheme of things. It has been suggested that it could be a special moment in franchise history if it could be arranged for both Spence and Harrison to be part of individual introductions on Sunday. That would be nice.
Le'Veon Bell and the ground game
An indication of how things have changed. Someone wrote on one of the Pittsburgh sports websites that they would buy Bell and running mate LaGarrette Blount some weed if necessary. Nobody blanched. I'm sure there's someone who's still uptight about that issue, but they would be wise to keep it to themselves at this juncture, because I can assure you that no one else cares. There were a number of beneficiaries from Sunday's game. Bell clearly was the greatest, as he received praise from the likes of Marshall Faulk and LaDamian Tomlinson. Sober talk of his being the best in the game at this point. With the confluence of his performance on a national stage and the eclipse of Adrian Peterson, it's not hyperbole to see Bell as not only tracking to stardom, but to possible superstar status. His style of running isn't just effective, but aesthetically pleasing in the sense that we've associated in the past with the likes of Gayle Sayers, OJ Simpson, Walter Peyton or a Barry Sanders. It's a style that elicits gasps and exclamations from viewers. A player that people may tune in solely to see him play. We knew he was going to be good, but this good?
He won the FedEx Ground Player of the Week award. As long as he's healthy expect the Steelers to turn up on national broadcasts even more than they do now.
And then there is Blount. As good as Bell is, you find yourself saying that they've got to find a way to get more touches for Blount. When you speak of him being a complementary back, it cannot be strictly in the sense of going in to give Bell a few plays off to catch his breath, or trying to bang out a couple of yards in situational, short-yardage scenarios. Voicing surprise at Blount's speed, Tunch Ilkin probably said what a lot of people were thinking when No. 27 went on a fifty-yard run (significant in this context in that it was merely the second longest run from scrimmage for a Steeler in this game). And take my word for it, because I saw at training camp that many of you can look forward to being equally surprised when you discover that Blount doesn't take a backseat to Bell as a pass receiver either. In fact, the two principal differences between these two runners is that Blount obviously is a lot bigger and tends to run over people that Bell chooses to run around. With that in mind, how the division of labor is handled will be an ongoing challenge. You can make the case that both need and have earned the right to have the ball in their hands a lot.
Oh, and Dri Archer is returning this week as well. I hope someone informs the rookie that the standard is the standard.
The Munch effect
A consensus has developed since his hiring that the acquisition of Mike Munchak was the most significant improvement the Steelers made during the 2014 off-season. The story behind the story of the now-potent Steelers' rushing attack (as of this writing #1 in the league) has been the performance of the offensive line. Accompanying the very open talk about Bell's rising reputation as a runner is the quieter but just as insistent conversation about the Pittsburgh OL being viewed as one of, if not the best in the NFL at this time. And while that has certainly been the plan and there has been some trending in that direction for some time, it is, given the history of the position group in recent years, a bit disorienting. Throughout Tomlin's tenure it has been considered a truism that the team managed to thrive in spite of the offensive line. Now it appears that the team may thrive because of the OL.
Two of the reasons for their success have been very much part of the conversation this week. First is the return of center Maurkice Pouncey, an interesting observation given the fact that a line of reasoning had been developing from some on this site that Pouncey was an overrated talent and should have been considered expendable prior to the signing of his contract extension. Those who still subscribe to that view can take the matter up with Munchak, Todd Haley, David DeCastro and a number of others who would, publicly disagree. Second would be the presence of Munch that's now being clearly reflected in the work of the group, exactly as predicted and pretty much on schedule. His charges are raving about him. They, in turn, are being lauded by Bell, Blount and Ben, among others who are the chief beneficiaries of their efforts.
Certain patterns of behavior and thought have also been altered with this group. After his performance against the Ravens, a crucifixion had been scheduled for right tackle Marcus Gilbert. It was cancelled due to lack of interest. Gilbert bounced back smartly this week and received high praise, along with DeCastro, for his work. DeCastro received mixed reviews for coming to the aid of teammate Justin Brown when Brown was being harassed by Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly. While the wisdom of the move, occurring while the Steelers offense was still struggling to score points, could be questioned, like Jack Lambert slamming Cliff Harris to the turf in Super Bowl X, DeCastro made a statement about the Steelers generally and that unit in particular. This transition from beleaguered to bullying is a trait that Munchak had been expected to instill into this group. Cody Wallace played so well subbing for injured started Ramon Foster that some wondered whether his effort had earned him the starting job. And the best thing that can be said about left tackle Kelvin Beachum is that nothing at all is being said about him, meaning he's doing his job well enough not to be noticed.
Antonio Brown and the receivers
Can you believe that AB and his two-touchdown performance, along with the rest of the receivers, has been something of an afterthought? Brown has reached the point where his star-level performances are being taken for granted. The jury is in on Markus Wheaton, who just missed on a touchdown reception of his own, but who's no longer questioned as the #2 receiver. Heath Miller bounced back from a less-than-stellar performance in Baltimore. And Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant have yet to be heard from. And let us not forget Ben Roethlisberger whose first touchdown pass to Brown was one of those brilliant feats reminiscent of his pass to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII. Only this time the degree of difficulty was higher since both he and his receiver were on the move and being harassed.
Can you believe that comparisons are now being made between the emerging trio of Ben, (A) Brown and Bell and the threesome of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irving? Ben, and now Brown, are already established as stars. Bell is rapidly on his way. But maybe you want to hold off on that until they at least make the playoffs again.
The defensive line
Though the Panthers' signal-caller was slowed by injuries and had less than a full quiver of weapons at his disposal, the ability of the defensive line to suppress Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, often with little help from the linebackers and secondary, was impressive. In general the defense showed good progress and continued to do so even as players began going down.
During their weekly briefing with the media, LeBeau held firm that the defense would be able to "adjust" in spite of losing a quarter of its starters in Carolina.
The Steelers earned national attention this week because of their play, but one player also has gotten the national spotlight as a beacon of light in relation to the off-field concerns that have mired the league in controversy. Gay was featured in a Sports Illustrated piece on domestic violence, his story being one of the few positive aspects from this whole sordid mess.
It's a good thing that Porter can coach. Hopefully you got to witness Porter's ill-fated chest bump with Cam Heyward when the latter was coming off the field after making a big play. Troy Polamalu was making the case for teams investing in older veterans and, indeed, there's something appealing about the getting-the-band-back-together nature of Pittsburgh's most recent moves. But Porter won't be a part of that, he's done. Or as Mike Tomlin stated in one of his news conferences this week. "We won't be signing Joey."
Waiting for Goodell
Thankfully, some of the league's difficulties receded a bit to make way for the games. But they aren't going away. MMQB's Greg Bedard sends an open letter making the case for the removal of Goodell, while Jack Bechta speaks to some of the front office reforms that might be necessary to right the corporate ship of the NFL.
In previewing Week 4 action, MMQB's Peter King had some good things to say about both Le'Veon Bell and former Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.