Well that feels better.
Finally getting in the “win” column is always satisfying, but Monday’s Steelers victory over the Cincinnati Bengals was especially gratifying to watch. Randy Fichtner schemed around the players he’s got (instead of trying to run the killer B’s offense with none of them in uniform), and the Keith Butler/Mike Tomlin defense absolutely dominated all day, with almost three times as many sacks registered as points allowed (and this on the heels of their five takeaway performance last week).
There are undoubtedly skeptics who will suggest that Steelers Nation cool its jets, because the Bengals are a bad team (which they are). In fact, just this week the consternation was so acute that some were suggesting this would be a historically bad year in Pittsburgh, giving the Steelers a top-10 draft pick for the first time in almost 20 years (which, in 2020, would go to the Miami Dolphins, after the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade). Some of those skeptics may even pop up in the comments section here.
To them, I say: just like Coach Tomlin, I don’t live in my fears. So rather than artificially lower my expectations in the wake of a potentially season-altering route, I’m going to revel in the case for cautious optimism at the season’s quarter pole.
Here are nine reasons why the Steelers are in remarkably good shape for a 1-3 team:
1 – They’re in the thick of the division.
Beating the Bengals didn’t just staunch the bleeding on a wounded season; it put the Steelers only one game back on Cleveland and Baltimore in the AFC North, and gave them a 1-0 division record.
To be 1-3 in the AFC East or West (each of which boasts a 4-0 club) is already to be competing for a Wild Card spot at best, which will be tough this year. I have a suspicion that any dreams of postseason glory for the Steelers go through the division title. And in a division with a pair of 2-2 clubs at the top, a 1-3 record (with all four games against those leaders yet to come) is actually not a bad place to sit.
2 – The rest of the division is not as hot as advertised.
The Baltimore Ravens came out of the gates on fire, blasting Miami 59-10 in week 1, and leading the talking heads to declare that Lamar Jackson was going to revolutionize the quarterback position. (Side note: can we stop saying that? I’ve been hearing that running QBs will “change the game” since Randall Cunningham was an Eagle. It’s a style of play that works sometimes and doesn’t at other times; it’s never going to be a “revolution.”) Anyway, the Ravens defense also looked fast and mean in pounding the Dolphins and Cardinals, and their offense was going to be one of the best.
That is, until they ran up against a very good Chiefs offense that ran them all over the stadium. But hey, the Chiefs are a powerhouse, people said; Baltimore was still a force to be reckoned with. Until Sunday, against a mixed-bag Cleveland Browns team that blew them off their own field. These two opponents rolled up 500+ yards in consecutive weeks for the first time in Ravens history. Suddenly Baltimore’s six-point victory over winless Arizona in week 2—last year’s worst squad, incidentally—looks less like an anomaly on the Ravens’ march to the division crown, and more like a bellwether for an uneven Baltimore team. It’s possible that beating up on one of the worst teams in NFL history fooled a few folks.
Meanwhile, the Browns won the offseason, as we all know. And (as often happens with those teams) has largely looked flat on the field. They blasted the Ravens this weekend, but were themselves blasted by an unreliable Tennessee Titans team a couple weeks ago. This looks like it’s going to be an up-and-down squad all year—talented for sure, but lacking in stable leadership, and eminently beatable.
Lots of people want to claim that their victory over the Ravens was Cleveland’s coming out party – the game where it all started to gel – but it’s hard to feel confident about the up-and-down Browns.
In short: this division is up for grabs.
3 – Even during their 0-3 start, the Steelers didn’t look nearly as bad as people said.
The opener against New England was a shock and a shame. We didn’t know Ben Roethlisberger was hurting yet, or that Donte Moncrief’s hands were made of solid granite, so that game got ugly fast. But the other two losses were NOT awful.
In weeks 2 and 3, the Steelers lost to two teams who are a combined 6-1, and they lost by a combined 6 points. Moreover, both games came down to a real toss-up moment or two. Against Seattle, the overturned DPI call against Terrell Edmunds that extended the Seahawks’ scoring drive may have been the difference in the game. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, James Conner should have been able to bleed out the clock in the final five minutes, but fumbled on Steelers territory instead. In other words, the Steelers probably would have beaten the 49ers even after turning 5 turnovers into only 6 points, if not for a poorly timed mistake.
The Steelers didn’t play perfect football in either game, but they could very easily be 3-1 right now, despite opening against three playoff favorites and a division rival. 1-3 hurts, but (with the exception of the opener) these guys haven’t been blown off the field.
4 – History suggests that this team can end strong.
I know skeptics will point to last season, when the team dropped four games down the stretch to miss the playoffs, but that’s much more the exception under Mike Tomlin than the rule.
If Tomlin’s teams have a trend over the last half-decade, it’s starting slow and finishing strong. This might be a reflection of the players needing time to gel as a team, or new additions needing time to learn new assignments. Or it might be a sign that the Steelers study film better than we give them credit for, and are better prepared for opponents when there’s more game film to watch. But whatever the case, this is how the Steelers started and finished over the last six years:
(For context, it’s worth noting that the team’s final regular season losses the last two years came as result of two rules which were subsequently changed—the Jesse James touchdown catch against New England in 2017, and the Joe Haden pass interference calls against the Saints last year. Today’s rules would have given the Steelers a win in the first, and potentially a win in the second, creating a staggering 21-3 record over the final quarter of the last six seasons.)
That said, 19-5 is nothing to cough at either. Nor is the collective 36-12 record over these seasons’ second halves. (And please note, skeptics, I’m including last year’s swoon in these numbers.) Tomlin’s teams tend to improve as the season wears on. A slow start is not a death-blow for this squad.
5 – They’re not out of the woods, but the most challenging stretch may have already happened.
The Steelers’ first three opponents have a combined record of 10-1. It’s not like the schedule becomes smooth-sledding at any point, but that opening stretch was unusually brutal.
Moving forward, the team will play Baltimore twice and Cleveland twice, as well as tough games against the Chargers, Rams, Colts, and Bills(!) still to come. These are all respectable, even strong teams. But every one of them is flawed, and all of them are beatable.
The Rams, for example, just gave up 55 points in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Colts just lost at home to a Raiders team coming off of two consecutive blowout losses of its own.
The Chargers’ only convincing victory came Sunday, against the aforementioned horrific Dolphins. (They are 1-2 otherwise.)
And the defensive powerhouse in Buffalo just lost their promising-but-developing quarterback (for who knows how long).
Meanwhile, Cleveland and Baltimore have already taught us not to trust preseason hype or blowouts against bottom-feeders.
This season is more wide-open than it looks, especially for a team that came a breath from knocking off strong teams the last two weeks and stomped a division rival (albeit a bad one) this week. It would be foolish to predict that the Steelers run the table (ha!), but it would be short-sighted and defeatist to count them out at this point.
6 – Leadership and selflessness are bringing this squad together.
Here’s an example of leadership and selflessness: JuJu Smith-Schuster was one of the most statistically impressive wide receivers in the NFL last year. His career numbers are off the charts for a kid as young as he is. And he’s under some real external pressure to live up to both the “number one WR” moniker, as well as to play well enough to make everyone forget Antonio Brown. JJSS caught only three passes for 15 yards against Cincinnati. He didn’t play badly; he simply wasn’t a big part of the available game plan.
And instead of freaking out on the sidelines, getting into Mason Rudolph’s ear, and pouting about not getting the ball, JuJu had a blast anyway because the Steelers won.
He coached up Dionte Johnson after Johnson’s early fumble; he blocked like a madman all day downfield; and he harassed his teammates about their post-game plans to try to catch them on his MNF mic. In other words, he was fully a part of the game and the team even though he didn’t get his numbers.
How refreshing to see a WR1 who’s capable of catching a dozen balls—of going up for a contested catch anywhere on the field, converting the tough third downs, or outrunning the defense on a breakaway bomb—who is happier winning with his team than losing with his numbers. That’s exactly the kind of example team leaders need to be setting this fall.
7 – Creativity and fearlessness from the coaches is also helping.
Much is currently being said about Randy Fichtner’s wildcat game plan against Cincinnati. But I think three points are worth drawing out here:
-- This never would have been deployed if Big Ben was under center. Which is to say, Fichtner figured out that you have to scheme to your players sometimes, rather than fit your players to the scheme. That’s called smart coaching.
-- Mike Tomlin called it “a little gimmicky” in acknowledging that you’ve gotta do what it takes to win. Which is to say, we shouldn’t expect this to be the only Steelers offense we see all year. And that’s exciting. Significant schematic changes didn’t make as much sense when Big Ben was in the lineup, because he was the engine for everything. But now we might see some real creativity. I like it.
-- The Steelers didn’t run particularly well, unless they did. Many have suggested that Mason Rudolph will need a strong running game (like Roethlisberger had as a rookie) to help him acclimate to the game. The Steelers have inexplicably flat-lined as a rushing team this year, but Monday’s flip-passes and jet-sweeps, which frequently go into the stat sheets as passes, are effectively running plays – they utilize Jaylen Samuels in multiple ways, and get James Conner in space a little, where he’s clearly more effective and comfortable. In other words, they’re taking an unconventional route to accomplish a traditional goal. That’s creative, and it worked.
Meanwhile, I’m a week late in pointing at Minkah Fitzpatrick, but I love the fearlessness of going out and getting him. This is a team that recognized its defense was going to have to grow up quick, and so snagged a young, top-11 draft pick with a year of experience right now.
I remember the 2008 Steelers well enough to believe that you can win with a talented but unreliable offense, if your defense gets the job done. These guys aren’t the 2008 edition, but they are a whole lot better today than they were a year ago, when Artie Burns and Jon Bostic were in the starting lineup and we were impatiently waiting for Morgan Burnett to get healthy.
8 – Newcomers have started to play like professionals.
Let’s check in on some of the newest Steelers:
Rookie Devin Bush had a terrific game Monday, and is still very much in the discussion for NFL Rookie of the Year. He has lived up to expectations and more.
Rookie Dionte Johnson atoned for an early fumble Monday by catching six passes for 77 yards and a touchdown – his second deep score in two weeks. He is becoming Mason Rudolph’s favorite target, and (if he can get his consistency up), might wind up being a real asset for years to come.
Mark Barron played much stronger football this week than last. After looking overmatched and slow against the 49ers, Barron recorded a game-high eleven tackles and tacked on a back-breaking end zone interception to boot.
Nick Vannett slid seamlessly into the Steelers starting lineup at tight end. He blocked well all day and caught a 17-yard outlet pass on a busted play to convert a third and long. (He’s not Heath Miller for sure, but you could be forgiven for having flashbacks to Big Ben breaking from the pocket and hitting Heath for a first down on that play.)
Minkah Fitzpatrick seemed to play a quiet game (four tackles, no pass breakups or takeaways) after his explosion against the 49ers. But then again, he was part of a secondary that held the previously powerful Bengals passing game to 102 yards and 2.3 yards per attempt(!). When you win 27-3 and your safety plays 69 snaps but only gets in on four tackles, that’s not an indictment of the safety at all.
All total, this was a game that pumped some life into the Steelers’ hopes. Maybe it was just the Bengals. Maybe it was that Mike Tomlin Monday Night Football magic. Maybe it was all an illusion. But for now, I think there’s real reason for optimism in Steel City. Keep your fingers crossed. We’ll know a lot more when the rubber hits the road this Sunday.