Stock Down: Demons and Travails
On October 30, 2011, the Steelers defeated the Patriots 25-17. That day, Deion Branch and pre-conviction Aaron Hernandez scored touchdowns for the Patriots, Shaun Suisham kicked three field goals for the Steelers, and the proceedings concluded when Troy Polamalu punched LaMarr Woodley’s strip-sack outta the back of the endzone. I, then in my sophomore year of college, was in the crowd, adorned in a Mike Wallace jersey that I bought for $25 as part of a mass order from a shady Chinese wholesaler. In light of the events that transpired in the years that followed, that game felt like it took place a thousand years ago.
In 2013, a little over two years after this game, the Steelers traveled to Gillette Stadium, where they were absolutely eviscerated by the Patriots; the 55 points allowed by Pittsburgh that day remains the worst single-game mark in franchise history. The Patriots shoveled even more dirt on the Steelers’ grave two years after that, defeating the Steelers handily in the opening game of the 2015 season. A Landry Jones-led Steelers team lost to the Patriots during the 2016 regular season; three months later, the Patriots defeated a Ben Roethlisberger-led Steelers team convincingly in the AFC Championship Game. Week 15 of the 2017 regular season was the Jesse James game. That’s six losses in a row.
Thus, by defeating the odious and vile Patriots 17-10 on Sunday, the recently-moribund Steelers not only kept their postseason hopes afloat, but exterminated a mighty and thoroughly invulnerable beast who on more than one occasion has reduced the Steelers to slurry of mashed bones and organs and whose mere specter constantly looms over the whole enterprise like a dank fog. If there’s such thing as a confidence-builder or springboard to success or some other sort of vague salesy metaphor in professional sports, this has gotta be among the foremost examples. Easily one of the 10 most significant Steelers victories of my conscious lifetime. Actually, yeah, let’s rank these (in no particular order):
-The Wild Card win against the Bengals. (The “significance” of this particular game is debatable, but watching the Bengals abruptly and harmoniously coalesce into a sinking garbage barge and lose a playoff game, in hilarious fashion, in their home stadium was an all-time joy bringer. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.)
-Super Bowl 40.
-Super Bowl 43.
-AFC Championship win over the Ravens, which was clinched by Troy Polamalu’s pick-six.
-The Mike Vanderjagt game. Despite knowing the outcome of this game, the following replay evokes unbearable memories of overwhelming dread:
(Upon clicking play, my heart rate increased and my palms began sweating. I also vomited Mom’s spaghetti.)
-The Immaculate Extension game.
-Comeback win against the Ravens in the Divisional Round during the 2011 playoffs.
-That one game against Denver in which Antonio Brown had like 17 catches.
I’m sure I’m missing a few. Please feel free to enlighten me in the comments.
Stock up: Keith Butler and his defense
I’m not gonna sit around and make any bombastic claims about how Pittsburgh’s win over New England was foretold by our fine lil’ blog, but...well, this, from last week’s random commentary:
“(As an aside to provide a bit of legitimate analysis, one very important factor this Sunday will be how well the Steelers defend Rob Gronkowski, who typically eats very well against Pittsburgh. Putting aside the fact that the Steelers have had literally no success whatsoever in defending the opposition’s best receiver over the past two weeks, Keith Butler has to know that, at this point, he’s probably coaching for his job, so perhaps in a fit of desperation he will mastermind an innovative strategy for stopping Gronkowski that doesn’t involve deploying a depth linebacker in coverage. That sure would be neat.)”
Sunday’s game against New England was Keith Butler’s magnum opus. Gronkowski did not eat—in fact, he was held to just two catches for 21 yards—and Tom Brady, who, it should be noted has, like, a 110.0 career QB rating against the Steelers, was overwhelmed by a menagerie of creative blitzes. Brady was sacked just once, but he spent most of his evening milling about rapidly-collapsing pockets before checking down to one of his five amorphous running backs or the contemptible Julian Edelman. Inundating the Patriots with a deluge of pressure, overpowering the offensive line, and flummoxing Brady seemed to be a preordained aspects of the game-plan, but what I found most impressive about Pittsburgh’s defensive game-plan were the in-game adjustments.
One of the most pronounced hallmarks of a Keith Butler defense is its confounding and steadfast unwillingness to adapt, and the discourse in the run-up to Sunday’s game indicated that this was not subject to change. Artie Burns was projected to start, for one thing, which is the kind of sad, desperation heave a frightened and unnerved man proposes when he faced with an impossible task and limited options with which to achieve it. Cam Sutton, a sub-average depth corner whose only upside is his purported physicality, was also expected to start. In light of these developments, I assumed Burns and Sutton would play the whole game, consequences be damned. After all, we’ve watched in unmitigated horror as Jared Cook and Keenan Allen feasted on a vast diet of poorly-designed and even more poorly-implemented coverage schemes, so it was difficult to have much confidence in the Steelers to implement a new strategy on the fly in the highly likely event that Sutton and Burns struggled.
But Butler did something he doesn’t usually do: he switched things up. Burns played three defensive snaps, and Sutton only played 10. The regular starters who Burns and Sutton initially usurped, Coty Sensabaugh and Mike Hilton, played about 40 apiece and were significant contributors in holding the Patriots to their lowest-scoring game against Pittsburgh in the Tom Brady era. Consider for a moment that, entering Sunday’s game, Brady had, like, a 5-to-1 touchdown/interception ratio against the Steelers, just some totally outlandish figure, one that no professional football team should ever have against another professional football team. To have held him below 300 yards and to just a single touchdown—one that came as the direct result of busted coverage—is a remarkable, downright commendable feat, and it’s a reflection, in part, of Butler’s defensive play-calling. .
Butler, much like Chris Boswell, is at the point where the fanbase is largely kinda over him and he’s maybe at the point where his intermediate- and long-term job prospects are determined on a week-by-week basis. Like, if the Steelers allowed 40 points and lost to the Patriots, it would’ve been difficult to envision a scenario wherein Keiter Butler was the defensive coordinator of the Steelers in 2019, regardless of what happened in Weeks 16, 17, or in the playoffs (if the Steelers even made it that far). With Sunday’s masterful effort, Butler—as well as Mike Tomlin, who, lest we forget, co-signs Butler’s schematics—has demonstrated that he’s capable of shutting down the opposition’s best offensive skill players. Let’s hope Butler’s penchant for innovation endures; he’ll need to be every bit as sharp as he was against New England this weekend against the Saints.
Stock up: The system
Jaylen Samuels rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries and was responsible for converting three critical first downs on Pittsburgh’s final offensive drive of the game, a drive that lasted more than five minutes and, critically, forced the Patriots to burn through their entire repository of timeouts. This, in turn, precluded the Patriots from stopping the clock during their final drive, which probably prevented them from being as offensively structured as they’d have liked.
Samuels is a nice looking player, and his efforts Sunday were paramount to Pittsburgh emerging victorious. His sample size is small, yeah, but at this point I’m convinced that you could stick any random chud in the league in Pittsburgh’s backfield and they’d do fine. If Le’Veon Bell has any issues securing his bag this offseason, he’ll have DeAngelo Williams, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels to thank for it. So sad.
Stock down: Mistake-free footbaw
Forgive me for totally being that guy, but the Steelers should’ve won by at least two possessions. Ben Roethlisberger, as is becoming disturbingly customary, threw an ugly interception in the Patriots half of the field and Chris Boswell, as is becoming even more disturbingly customary shanked a chip-shot field goal. Both later redeemed themselves—Roethlisberger with a non-zero number of perfect, chain-moving passes and Houdinian feats of stunning escapism and Boswell with a 48-year-field goal to push Pittsburgh’s lead to seven with 2:30 remaining in the game—but expecting a bad interception or missed field goal does not make the Steelers viewing experience particularly enjoyable. This team is gonna kill me.
Stock down: Artie Burns
Yeah, this poor guy is toast.
Stock up: Joe Haden
Bonus Stock: Todd Haley
Arguably the most frustrating aspect of the 2014-2017 Steelers was their inability to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, this despite routinely boasting one of the league’s most volcanic arsenals of offensive firepower. This year, the Steelers are converting in the red-zone at a borderline unprecedented clip. What happened? If you did the lazy thing and said, “Uhh, it was probably Todd Haley’s fault, that guy sucks” well then you are absolutely correct. See below:
COACHING MATTERS!!!!— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 16, 2018
Browns are 100% in the red zone since firing Todd Haley.
• best in the NFL since week 9
Steelers have a 78% red zone conversion rate since firing Todd Haley
• best % in the NFL since 2003
Again, COACHING MATTERS!!!
Todd Haley is bad.