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The case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014: Part Two

Veteran leadership and a robust offense must lead the way early.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The fate of the 2014 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers could be decided in one week.

This week.

On the other hand, if an 0-4 start in 2013 taught us anything, it would be that things aren't necessarily settled quickly in the NFL, or at least not for this team. But the potential exists for the Steelers to be in either exceptionally good or very poor shape by the end of the day on September 11th as they will be digesting the results of two key divisional match-ups days before the rest of league suits up for their second games.

There's a strange quality to these opening contests. If you can make sense of what I'm about to say; the Cleveland game may not mean all that much if Pittsburgh wins, but could represent a huge loss. By contrast, a loss in Baltimore after a short week wouldn't be all that meaningful, but a win could be very big, especially since the rematch will be a nationally-televised night game at Heinz Field involving the retirement of Joe Greene's jersey, surely not the ideal, must-win scenario for the Ravens. 2-0 doesn't wrap up the division or a playoff berth, but it would give the team a significant leg-up on its rivals and a nice margin for error as the team strives to coalesce in the early going. 0-2 wouldn't be the end of the world, but you'd certainly be able to discern it from that vantage point without the aid of binoculars.

Pittsburgh doesn't have the luxury of a leisurely start.

The Steelers 0-4 start in 2013 is one that the team has put behind them, but at the same time highlights the importance of a fast start. The Steelers finished off the season with three straight wins, but were left out of the playoff picture after not being able to fully dig out of the early hole. Coach Mike Tomlin hopes that the players didn’t need that start as a reminder of how important a fast start is.

"I hope that point already hit home," said Tomlin. "I don’t like to be reactionary in my thinking. I don’t need a 0-4 start to let me know how significant good starts are. They are significant. I’ll proceed with the same mentality that I have throughout the course of my career, not only here but prior to being here."

There is plenty of high-quality, young talent on this squad, but it will be asking a lot to expect them to hit the ground running Day One, Minute One of 2014. Because the team has so many newcomers, a circumstance that might be quite manageable in November is fraught with peril at the beginning of September. The group that will probably have to carry the Steelers through this initial period is a dwindling cadre of long-term Pittsburgh veterans.


In Part One, I discussed the contributions of front office and head-coaching leadership. There's another aspect of leadership that always plays an important part in team success. Given the delicate state of a roster that must place so much responsibility for its fate in the hands of players having little or no experience in the Pittsburgh system, the league in general, or both, the role of seasoned Steelers veterans takes on outsized importance.

For football teams, leadership manifests in two primary forms. The first was covered in both the body of the article in Part One of this series, as well as in comments by cliff harris is still a punk! (himself a football coach). The establishment of team culture and expectations, the teaching of fundamentals and schemes, philosophy, technique, discipline and endless details. But there's an aspect of leadership that no coach or front-office manager can touch. It can only come from one's peers on the team.

A lot can be accomplished by telling or demonstrating what needs to be done in order to succeed, but the 'show' part of show-and-tell is crucial. Sixty years ago, the four-minute-mile barrier was viewed as insurmountable until an Englishman by the name of Roger Bannister showed the world how it could be done. Today, recreational runners routinely turn in sub-four-minute times. There's something in the makeup of human beings that responds to modeling like nothing else. The first member of a family, gender or ethnic group to attend college or enter a profession opens the floodgates for those who follow.

Every football team has its veterans who can convey to younger, less experienced players what constitutes proper professional behavior, how to conduct oneself in a baseline manner in the NFL. But Pittsburgh has a treasure that few other organizations can match. There's a group of veterans who are not just conversant in survival, but they also know how to win championships, which is another matter entirely. In addition to the formal captains (Ben Roethelisberger, Troy Polamalu, Shaun Suisham and Robert Golden) announced a couple days ago, there's a shadow leadership consisting of young, emerging veterans such as Antonio Brown, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster, but also augmented by an elite group that not only brings talent and experience, but SB rings as well. Heath Miller, Ike Taylor, Greg Warren, Lance Moore, Will Allen, Matt Spaeth and Brett Keisel.  What this latter group brings to the table besides unmatched credibility is experience in knowing how to actually reach the Promised Land. Just as importantly, perhaps even more so, they bring a hunger that only those who have been to the top of the mountain can understand and only a return to that summit can satisfy. It is this last factor especially that creates the necessary ruthlessness of spirit that drives champions and, hopefully, which can be transferred to a new generation. If there's a legitimate sense of urgency for the organization at this juncture, it's to capitalize on this resource before they ride away into the sunset.

One last thing on the leadership brought to the table by this particular assemblage of men.

When I interviewed the late Bill Nunn, he lamented the fact that the coaching ranks were being increasingly filled by individuals who had never played the game. No attention was given to the assistant coaches in Part One, but it's worth noting that, beyond their basic teaching skills, many of Mike Tomlin's assistants have performed at a high level as players in this league; examples including Carnell Lake, Joey Porter's championship pedigree and Hall of Famers Dick LeBeau and Mike Munchak. To a man, the offensive line mentioned Munchak's perspective as a player being a difference-maker in their perception of and acceptance of his leadership. This and other aspects of leadership are difficult to quantify, but we can watch carefully to see if we perceive a difference once the bullets start flying.

The Offense

A couple of obvious differences about the offense this season, both positive developments. First, isn't it nice that we are not dealing with any drama or controversy over the relationship between Ben and offensive coordinator Todd Haley? The difference is the maturation of the relationship between the OC and the starting quarterback, as well as maturation of the understanding of the system by the players and the acquisition of talent that fits its requirements. It also helped that faith and confidence has been built all around based upon the performance of this unit during the latter portion of last season.

Second is the fact that this leg of the stool will be serving as the foundation, the rock upon which the success of the 2014 season will depend, at least in the early going. A change from the usual expectation that the offense functions as a junior partner in team aspirations.


I'm going to repeat the first two paragraphs from this section from last season because the statement still applies.

If you don't remember anything of the few thousand words or so of this series it would be this, easily the most important thing to know about the chances for the 2013 [4] Steelers. As long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy enough to be on the field and has any reasonable supporting cast, this team can win. And I don't mean in the fuzzy, hypothetical sense of any given Sunday. I mean the other team is in trouble, period.

Now read the following carefully and as many times as necessary until it sinks in; Ben is in the middle of a run that is likely to land him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Do not get caught up in the bigotry of football agism that says that any age that begins with a '3' means you've got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Ben is right in the sweet spot of his prime. The worse case scenario is that he's just as good a player as always. But there is evidence that he may, in fact, be better than he's ever been. His arm is reportedly stronger, his knowledge of the game and confidence is improved. I could actually stop the series right here and be assured of a credible argument for the Steelers.

If anything, this statement is truer now than it was then. Ben, like Tomlin, could be entering the best part of his career armed with the necessary tools, both systemically and talent-wise, where greatness may be attached to his name without qualifiers.

A couple of other quotes from last year that, unfortunately, may still apply. I wrote this in reference to what might happen if, as in 2012, both the number one and two quarterbacks went down.

Now consider the possibility we are faced with such a scenario this year and insert Landry Jones. You see the concern?

And please don't consider this a knock on Jones. Third string quarterbacks are like those doughnut type spare tires. They are designed to get you from the middle of nowhere to a filling station. You don't have the expectation that they can carry you along the interstate from New York City to Chicago.

So am I just being Captain Obvious and saying that success depends on Ben staying upright? No.

Success may depend upon keeping Bruce Gradkowski upright.

I'm sure that some of you are thinking I'm being entirely too kind.

Offensive line

Again, another quote from last year's piece that creates an interesting perspective going forward.

According to Ben they are the best group he has had since he has been here. That would include the unit of Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks. Three Pro Bowlers in there I believe. It might also put them in the running of being, eventually the best group in the past 55 years. Getting way ahead of things here, but the point needs to be made that this unit has potentially the most dramatic upside of any on the team. On the other hand, it may take some time to get there.

Complicated by the injury to Pouncey, it took about three months. Players like DeCastro, Beachum and Adams had barely any experience at all due to injuries incurred during their rookie campaigns. Assuming that Ben wasn't just blowing smoke, healthy and with a hard-earned year of experience and adversity at their backs, and with the addition of Mike Munchak, well what do you think?

Running backs

You might have thought that given the, um, incident, and the relatively small number in their position group that the Steelers would have been anxious to make some additions. That it hasn't happened (at least so far) is perhaps the best indication of the strength of this group. One of the few things I feel I can actually personally vouch for is what I witnessed at training camp in regard to the running backs.

During a back-on-backers passing drill, I watched Bell and Blount dominate the likes of Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence and Arthur Moats. (If you were wondering, Ryan Shazier was spared the humiliation due to injury). The most enthused response I heard from Mike Tomlin in three days is when Le'Veon Bell absolutely abused Timmons. These guys can run, catch and move in space. When they focused on it in the preseason, the running attack was robust and effective. Add Will Johnson to the mix as well. What we got a brief glimpse of in the Carolina game is that, if Johnson has the skills to function as a complete (not merely a blocking) tight end, then he certainly can fully function as a running back, not just a smallish blocker.

Tight ends

Mentioning Johnson provides a tidy segue to his other position on the organizational chart. The problem with this position group last year is what bothered much of the offense. There was great talent in Miller, Spaeth and David Johnson. The problem was that, through the early portion of 2013, all three were limited or unavailable at some point. None was healthy at the same time as the others at any point during that season. The difference this year for this group, as well as for the running backs and offensive line, is that they begin the year healthy. If attrition can be kept to a minimum, then this team has what it needs.

Wide receivers

Once again let me offer an extended quote from last year.

Since he left for Miami we've been fed the line that the exit of Mike Wallace constitutes some sort of major disaster for the Steelers. Once again history tells a different story.

In 2005 Pittsburgh's number one receiver, Plaxico Burress left via free agency. The receiving corp that year consisted of Hines Ward, Antwan Randle El, Cedric Wilson and Nate Washington. The team won the Super Bowl. In 2010 number one receiver Santonio Holmes was traded to the New York Jets, leaving a receiving group of Ward, Wallace, Randle El, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Again, they went to the Super Bowl. Somehow I don't feel that Wallace is better than Plax or Santonio. And Brown, Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Jerricho Cotchery and Derek Moye would matchup favorably with any of those other groups. Brown has to demonstrate that he can be as productive when drawing number one coverage. Sanders has to stay healthy. With Mann instructing them on professionalism its hard to see them as any kind of liability.

So for this year, sub-in the names Sanders and Cotchery for those leaving and and add Justin Brown, Moore, Martavis Bryant and Darius Heyward-Bey. How does this work? What is the common denominator here? Ben. These receivers will do good work, maybe their best work because they will partnered with the best quarterback they've likely ever had. Simple, right?

One final quote from last year that can serve to summarize this season's offensive prospects. The dislocations caused by the avalanche of injuries did not allow this prediction to be fulfilled, but it was otherwise appropriate and is still appropriate now. Speaking of the Steelers' offense, Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated described the Steelers offense as potentially being borderline unstoppable:

Ben has a lot of weapons at his disposal, ... enough so that no one player is indispensible, meaning that defenses may not be able to focus upon trying to stop any one individual.

I believed it then, I think it's true now.

Part Three will cover defense and special teams