Professional sports are a collective entertainment medium where optimism and hopefulness routinely subvert rationality and levelheadedness, where rooting interests are staked in players—who, aside from their superhero musculatures and extrasensory reflexes, are fallible human people—whose worldviews may be fundamentally at odds with those of the viewer at home, and where blithely disregarding the home team’s failings and shortcomings while correspondingly reveling in the opposition’s schadenfreude is all part of the natural order of things. To be a sports fan is to thrust yourself headlong into a violent and unpredictable vortex in the hope that maybe, just maybe, your favorite team will throw you a lifeline. Fandom itself is generally determined by your geography but in many cases, it’s passed down; just imagine, an innocent and unblemished and pristine baby, a blank slate with limitless potential, emerging from her mother’s womb and taking her first breaths only to be placed in an incubator festooned with Cincinnati Bengals stickers. Absolutely sickening. Sports fandom is geographical and generational Stockholm Syndrome.
The Steelers defeated—nay; destroyed—the woebegone Bengals 27-3 in front of a national audience to secure their first win in what was shaping up to be a lost season. The defense was profoundly menacing, the offense was efficient and multidimensional, and the coaching was genuinely flawless. The Steelers are now just a game out of first in the AFC North and, with a victory this weekend against Baltimore coupled with a Cleveland loss to the 49ers, could be leading the division by this time next week. Indeed, after an 0-3 start, the Steelers are poised to...do you see what being a Steelers fan has done to my brain? I’m starting to believe that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Steelers could be playing in meaningful games this December because they convincingly defeated the second-worst team in the NFL. This is not rational thinking.
Steelers postseason hopes: Stock up
Here are some things to consider:
-The Monday Night Football crew pointed out that, since the NFL playoffs were reformatted in 1990, roughly 15% of the teams who started the season 1-3 rebounded to make the playoffs. Those odds aren’t great, but it’s better than the fate that awaits the teams that fall to 0-4: the 1992 Chargers are the only team in NFL history to begin the season 0-4 and rally to make the playoffs.
-Last season, two teams—the Texans and the Colts—started the season 1-3 (the Colts actually started 1-5, but alas) and ultimately remobilized and made their way to the postseason. Granted, those teams were led by All-Pro caliber quarterbacks and replete with volcanic offensive skill players, but the recency of these turnarounds indicate that throwing in the towel and diverting your rooting interests elsewhere this early in the season is an imprudent decision.
-The Steelers have four games on the schedule against winless teams: the Dolphins in Week 8, the Bengals in Week 12, the Cardinals in Week 14, and the Jets in Week 16. The Steelers also host the Colts, who are currently 2-2 but have allowed more points than they’ve scored, and the Bills, who have a legitimate championship-caliber defense but a meh offense helmed by a veritable turnover machine. Those are six winnable games. The AFC kinda sucks aside from the Patriots and Chiefs, so if the Steelers can win five of the six aforementioned lay-ups, split with the Ravens and Browns, and steal a win against the Chargers or the Rams, they could find themselves in contention for a Wildcard berth.
Sports fandom: performing laborious mental gymnastics to convince yourself that, actually, your 1-3 team is exactly where it needs to be.
Offensive skill players: Stock into the stratosphere
Mason Rudolph completed 24 of his 28 passing attempts for 229 yards and a pair of touchdowns, which is a solid, efficient, respectable-looking stat-line. Of course, it did not take long for hordes of WELL ACTUALLY Football Knowers to emerge from their swamps to inform you, the idiot football watcher, that, actually, Rudolph’s first career win was not impressive. He only attempted four passes that traveled more than 10 yards in the air. He checked the ball down on every play. His receivers did all the legwork. He managed the game.
While it is not inaccurate to state that Rudolph did frequently utilize check-downs—running backs James Conner and Jaylen Samuels had eight receptions apiece, which is bananas—it’s important to bear in mind that, on at least a handful of these plays, checking the ball to the running back was literally Rudolph’s last read. Indeed, on numerous unscripted check-downs, Rudolph tactfully ambled about the pocket while keeping his gaze directed upfield, scanning the deep secondary for open targets. When there were none to be found, he dumped the ball off to Conner or Samuels. I am kind of at a loss to understand how forcing passes 20 yards downfield into coverage is preferable to a safe and high-percentage that in many cases pits a running back in open space against a linebacker.
Rudolph did manage the game against Cincinnati, and he had tremendous success in doing so. That he’s somehow a lesser quarterback for effectively executing the plays that were transmitted into his headset instead of chucking the ball downfield into triple coverage is ridiculous. While the Steelers will eventually be forced to eschew unconventionality (they ran like a dozen plays from the Wildcat formation on Sunday, which probably isn’t a viable long-term offensive solution unless you’re, like, Georgia Tech) in favor of a more conventional attack, one that does require Rudolph to make some honest to God professional throws downfield into impossibly tight windows, sound, well-coached teams can win with game-manager quarterbacks. The Steelers won a Super Bowl back in 2005 with Ben Roethlisberger playing the role of game manager, and Tom Brady hasn’t thrown the ball more than 15 yards downfield since the Obama administration. He’s won two Super Bowls since 2016 and will almost certainly claim his third this season because existence is pain and our doom is inevitable.
On the topic of inevitabilities, it was nice to see Conner get things back on the right track. The 2018 Pro Bowler was off to a gruesome start this season, but Sunday’s performance gives him something positive on which to build. If nothing else, it’s flatly apparent based on his elevated usage rate against Cincinnati that Conner will be a foremost target in the passing attack for the remainder of the 2019 campaign (he actually has more receiving yards than rushing yards so far this season). Eighty receptions is not out of the question.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that Conner will be the same three-down workhorse that he was for much of last season. He very well could be, but Samuels’ performance against Cincinnati demonstrated that it kinda behooves the Steelers to work Samuels into the game-plan. The second-year multitool had 112 all-purpose yards of his own, including 31 passing yards that came exclusively in the Wildcat formation. Although Samuels’ “passes” were forward tosses to runners in motion—effectively hand-offs—it’s important to note that Samuels was almost certainly distributing the ball based on his own observations of the Bengals defense. In the Wildcat formation, the “quarterback”—which is usually a running back or receiver—generally has three primary options: they can hand the ball off to the back accompanying them in the backfield, they can pitch the ball to a runner coming across the formation, or they can keep the ball. As such, that Samuels’ “passes” netted him 31 yards is very much the direct result of his own reads. Samuels is a smart, versatile player; the Steelers should be getting him at least 10 touches a game.
This is a Very Dad Sports Take, but I appreciated how upbeat animated JuJu Smith-Schuster was on the sidelines for the duration of Sunday’s proceedings. Pause for a moment to imagine Antonio Brown’s body language and outward expressions if he had three catches for 15 yards in a nationally-televised blowout win. He’d have been furious. It would have been easy—and forgivable—for Smith-Schuster to lament over his lack of usage and production against Cincinnati, but instead he remained unfailingly positive, praising and encouraging his teammates and even inquiring about their post-game plans (he had his sights set on Fortnite, presumably to the chagrin of the Serious Football Men in Pittsburgh’s toxic sports media ecosystem who conflate the enjoyment of video games and immaturity). It’s great when your favorite team wins, but rooting for genuinely amiable and gregarious players like JuJu Smith-Schuster is what sports fandom should be all about.
Offensive line: Stock trending up
It is inarguable that the offensive line underperformed in each the Steelers’ first three games. This is, after all, the team’s strongest positional group, a unit that features a trio of Pro Bowlers, one of the league’s most experienced guards in Ramon Foster, and a right tackle in Matt Feiler who the Steelers deemed talented enough to supplant Marcus Gilbert, who when healthy—and eligible—represents an immediate positional upgrade for all but maybe a handful of teams. That the line played no small role in exacerbating Pittsburgh’s offensive woes is inexcusable; this outfit’s simply too talented to look so hapless.
Sunday represented something of a turning point. The rushing attack was effective—the Steelers only managed 2.6 yards per run, but that total doesn’t take into consideration the various dump-offs and designed Wildcat pitches, which are technically passing plays but functionally are rushing attempts—and the Bengals front seven didn’t manage even a single quarterback hit. Keeping the pressure off the quarterback and creating lanes for backs and receivers to slalom through effortlessly is—duh—a winning formula.
The front seven: Immeasurable
An important disclaimer: the Bengals offensive line is total butt. An octogenarian with bunions has better footwork than Andre Smith. The only reason Smith is playing in the first place is because first-round pick Jonah Williams, a player who never missed a game in his career at Alabama, saw his labrum detonate in his first training camp with this deeply-cursed enterprise, and because Williams’ backup Cordy Glenn is still dealing with the ill-effects of a concussion. Elsewhere, Billy Price, who the Bengals drafted in the first round last season, was beaten out by Trey Hopkins, who sucks. The actual Michael Jordan—the one from Space Jam—is a better pass blocker than the Bengals’ Michael Jordan. John Miller and Bobby Hart are real players and not computer-generated members of the 2020 draft class in your Madden franchise. Total butt.
With that said, the Steelers bull-rushed, bum-rushed, and speed-rushed their way to a franchise-record eight sacks. Bud Dupree had a critical strip-sack with the Bengals in scoring position, for gosh sakes. Bud Dupree! If a foremost world leader tweeting a Nickelback meme isn’t a signal that we are living in the end of times, Dupree making a positive defensive contribution most certainly is. T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward were unblockable, combining for four sacks and six quarterback hits (Watt also recovered the aforementioned fumble forced by Dupree). The Bengals lost 69 (nice) yards from sacks.
The Steelers aren’t gonna replicate this performance on a weekly basis. They’ll face more formidable offensive lines, skill groups with players who are better at getting open than Auden Tate and Tyler Eifert’s rotting corpse, and quarterbacks who won’t stand in a pit of quicksand slowly sinking toward their demise while they wait for an open receiver. But getting after the quarterback has been a foremost hallmark of the Steelers defense to this point in the Keith Butler era (they led the league in sacks in each of the past two seasons and look like a safe bet to do so again this year), so even if the Steelers don’t drag the opposing quarterback to the ground seven or eight times a game, rushing the passer should be a major strength for this group moving forward.
And I’d be remiss if I did not specifically highlight the showings by Mark Barron and Devin Bush. Barron and Bush were absolutely everywhere against Cincinnati: deftly infiltrating gaps to snuff out run plays, chasing ballcarriers down near the sidelines, and defending tight ends and receivers downfield. Bush also picked up his first career sack during a play in which he recognized that no one on the Bengals was gonna stay home to block him, shot through the empty gap untouched, and put Dalton into the ground before The Red Rocket even had a chance to realize what was happening.
The Ravens are next, and wooooooo boy are they something. Lamar Jackson has cooled off only slightly after playing like an MVP candidate in Weeks 1 and 2, but he’s still objectively the league’s most dangerous dual-threat quarterback. Draft Knowers—including some on this very website—convinced themselves that, actually, Lamar Jackson, despite putting together one of the most mind-bogglingly prolific seasons in NCAA history, would fare better as a running back or wide receiver in the NFL. You hate to see it.
Joining Jackson in the backfield is Saints castoff Mark Ingram, who currently ranks sixth in the league in rushing, first in touchdowns, and first in efficiency (he’s averaging 6.0 yards per run, which is preposterous). Between Jackson, Ingram, and the other ancillary backs, the Ravens are averaging 205 rushing yards per game, which is total that sounds like it ought to be impossible in the professional ranks. The passing attack, meanwhile, is no longer devoid of explosive field-stretching receivers: Marquise Brown, an All-American at Oklahoma and cousin of some guy who used to play for the Steelers, is, unsurprisingly, awesome. The Ravens also have what is without question the best tight end grouping in the NFL.
What should concern you, the discerning Steelers fan, about Baltimore’s offense is not Jackson (though he should concern you gravely, because he totally rules) nor is it Ingram, Brown, or the beefy triumvirate tight ends. What sets these Ravens apart from all but maybe three or four other teams in the NFL is that they are eminently well-coached. Baltimore nearly fired John Harbaugh last season, which would’ve gone down as one of the most misguided personnel decisions in league history. This is a person who, in the aftermath of a precipitous falloff from a quarterback with whom he won a Super Bowl, completely redesigned his offense on the fly to accentuate the talents of a quarterback whose skillset could not possibly be more dissimilar than that of the incumbent. Harbaugh is doing a masterful job coaching this Ravens team.
The defense, as per usual, is exceptional. The Ravens replaced Eric Weddle with Earl freaking Thomas. Just an embarrassment of riches.
Weekly food take
Chipotle has carne asada now. I tried some this week and can confidently say that is absolutely slaps. Yeah, anything that you order from an OG Mexican spot or that you make yourself is gonna be better, but if you’re craving some explosively flavorful burrito meat—and lots of it—Chipotle has your back. My Chipotle “hack” is ordering a bowl with double meat and two tortillas on the side, which effectively nets you two burritos.