To say that Skycam™ was divisive and controversial would be an understatement. A cursory review of Twitter indicated that the introduction Skycam was met with either unbridled adulation or unmitigated, vitriolic disdain.
I hated Skycam. I thought Skycam sucked so, so hard. But I understand why Skycam happened.
Last February, the NFL, along with monolithic network giants CBS and NBC, agreed to a massive, multiyear broadcasting contract—one that nets the NFL somewhere in the ballpark of $45 million per game. Within this incredibly lucrative contact lies an interesting Catch-22: players and a lot of fans abhor Thursday night games, but due to the league’s revenue sharing model, that extra coin ultimately confers some mildly-tangible benefits to the players, such as a higher salary cap and, by extension, larger contracts. And this is precisely why Thursday Night Football does not appear to be in any immediate danger. There are a multitude of surface-level concerns plaguing the current product—player safety issues, the over-proliferation of NFL football, and the dissemination of what are often watered-down or otherwise unwatchable matchups, to name a few— but the ratings, which are down from 2016, still are generally very solid.
That’s why Skycam seemed like a desperation play by an organization that recognizes it has some issues, but isn’t self-aware enough to pinpoint the source of those issues. I can almost picture the meeting that must’ve taken place prior to the implementation of Skycam:
NBC executive: “Why are ratings down?”
NFL executive: “Millennials.”
NBC executive: “I figured. Why don’t millennials like the NFL?”
CBS executive: “Is it because the NFL desperately seeks to maintain a strong “stick to sports” mentality at all levels? Is it because the league itself has a terrible relationship with its players? Is it because the NBA has a more visually-appealing product and superior upper manag…”
*taser noises, followed by a heavy thud*
NFL executive: It’s because of video games. What if we switched the camera angle so the game appears as it does in Madden?
NBC executive: Brilliant! I’ll start the paperwork immediately.
I’m being too critical of Skycam. Truthfully, Skycam is a pretty cool novelty that allows us, the fans, to view the game from a new perspective. Antonio Brown’s first touchdown catch? The average fan could’ve spotted it before Ben Roethlisberger even threw the ball.
But the way NBC went about introducing Skycam and subsequently discussing Skycam was anything but charming. It seemed almost as if color commentators Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth were reading from cue cards throughout the telecast.
Cris: Gee, Mike, isn’t Skycam great? It allows us to see what the players see.
Mike: It sure it, Cris! The NFL sure is pioneering new terrain with Skycam. (*more quietly* Please, I did what you asked. Please let my family go.)
Cris (now crying): Gee, that Antonio Brown sure is…*sniffs* sure is a great receiver, Mike.
I guess Skycam’s current stock is preferential. I’m putting it down. Screw Skycam. Let’s check on the game:
The game plan – Stock up, then down, then back up again
On their first drive of the game, the Steelers went up-tempo—much like they did for their second-half run against Indianapolis Colts last week, a run that culminated in 17 unanswered points over about a quarter and a half—and scored a touchdown. They proceeded to slow things down, which led to, like, four consecutive three-and-outs and a pair of trips that stalled in the red-zone. Not good. However, some apparent halftime adjustments enabled the Steelers to orchestrate four scoring drives to seal the game. So, what happened?
If I had to guess, I’d wager that no “major adjustments” took place—the Steelers just had greater success executing their original game plan in the second half.
Very early in Thursday’s game, it became apparent that Pittsburgh’s ground game was never going to be anything more than a decoy. Le’Veon Bell carried the ball only five times in the first half and 12 times overall, and I’d argue that half of those runs weren’t designed plays to begin with, but rather the result of Roethlisberger changing the play at the line. Instead, Pittsburgh decided to borrow a page from New England’s play book and use the short passing game as a surrogate for the rushing attack. As he’s wont to do, Roethlisberger did take his fair share of deep shots, but, more often than not, Option B (Option A is always Antonio Brown, no matter what) was a receiver at or near the line of scrimmage. Rarely did the Steelers deviate from this formula, as exemplified by Roethlisberger’s almost-unbelievable 299 passing yards on 45 attempts (for context, Roethlisberger threw 49 passes the night he threw for 522 yards against the Colts and 46 passes the night he threw for 503 yards against the Packers). And against a team like Tennessee, which routinely sends extra pass rushers and leaves the secondary in man coverage, getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and into the mitts of a receiver and taking a requisite number of deep shots is a formula that works; sometimes it just takes a half or so to fall into place.
The front seven - Stock up
This website is, by definition, a Pittsburgh Steelers website, but that should not distract from the fact that Cameron Heyward should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s been that dominant so far.
Heyward collected a pair of sacks on Thursday, extending his team lead to seven and positioning himself just outside the top-10 in the NFL in that category. Rarely are 3-4 defensive ends so productive, especially in a defensive system like Pittsburgh’s, in which ends serve as de facto defensive tackles, meant to control the running game and occupy blockers so the linebackers can fly around and get after the quarterback. Heyward decided to cut out the middle man and simply get those sacks himself (and even when Heyward isn’t dragging the opposing quarterback to the ground, he’s coming mighty close).
Heyward’s teammates were just as successful against Tennessee, picking up five sacks and holding the Titans’ 6th-ranked rushing attack to only 52 yards on 21 carries.
The secondary - Stock up
It’s easy to look at Tennessee’s gross passing yardage and ascertain that the Steelers secondary had a rough game. And at times, they did. On the first play after halftime, Marcus Mariota and Rishard Matthews connected on a 75-yard touchdown, which was the third touchdown pass of 60 or more yards the Steelers have allowed in their past two games. The most discouraging aspect of that touchdown was the fact that it didn’t result from blown coverage or some catastrophic mistake in the deep secondary—Mariota and Matthews simply exploited man coverage.
But it must be noted that the Steelers played Thursday’s game without Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden, a duo who might represent the two best players in Pittsburgh’s secondary. In spite of this, the Steelers forced four interceptions, three of which were the direct result of the defensive back making a great play on the ball. Last week, we wrote this:
“What we’re saying is that Artie Burns, Coty Sensabaugh, Robert Golden, and Sean Davis are the second coming of the Legion of Boom. Tennessee is averaging a little over 200 passing yards per game and Mariota’s interception numbers are up, so LOB 2.0 could feast in omnivorous fashion.”
The front-seven seemed to do the brunt of the heavy lifting on the five sacks, so we’ll adjust our wording to read that the secondary feasted “carnivorously.”
Impressively, the Steelers did this against a quarterback who is, by most measures, a very solid NFL passer. Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Brett Hundley is decidedly not a very solid NFL passer, so the Steelers could be in for a repeat performance this Sunday.
The game ball - People who watched the entire game
I work in Pittsburgh within reasonable walking distance of Heinz Field, so I checked Ticketmaster on Thursday morning to see about getting tickets on a whim. Not surprisingly, there were maybe 50 pairs of tickets in the 500-something sections listed for $40 or less. (If you ever plan a trip to Pittsburgh for a game, this is actually useful advice: ALWAYS buy your tickets the day before or even the day of the game. You’ll save a ton of money).
Anyway, I ultimately decided against attending the game because a) it was a work night and b) it was super cold. I didn’t miss much because, by the beginning of the fourth quarter, the upper decks were noticeably vacant and wide shots of the stadium exterior revealed lines of ant-like Steelers fans trying to beat traffic (I would have 100 percent been among them).
But those who stayed for the entire game are the truest fans out there, braving the cold weather and hellish Friday work or school days in the name of fandom.
Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
It’s a 1 this week. Ben did a bunch of “classic Ben” kind of things on Thursday, which bodes well for Pittsburgh’s outlook moving forward.