In the wake of the Steelers’ demoralizing 16-10 loss to the Jets on Sunday, I am turning my attention to the Christmas holiday. It’s not that I’ve given up on what remains of the Steelers’ season. With one game left, there is still a chance Pittsburgh will win against a Ravens’ squad resting their starters in Baltimore while Tennessee, who currently possesses the #6 seed in the AFC, will lose in Houston. That would allow the Steelers to sneak past the Titans and into the playoffs. It’s not an unfathomable scenario. Unlikely, perhaps, given how poorly our offense is performing. But not unfathomable.
Still, we’ve seen the ceiling of this Steelers’ team, and it is far too low to make any real noise should we be fortunate enough to qualify. There are just too many injuries to key contributors and too many not-ready-for-prime-time players forced into prominent roles. I’m putting that aside for now though. It’s Christmas! Time to eat, drink and be merry. In the spirit of the season, then, I would like to bestow a host of holiday wishes upon various members of our favorite professional football organization. May they travel from my lips to the ears of the jolly fat man up North:
To Mike Tomlin
The opportunity to coach a healthy football team in 2020. Tomlin has done a solid job getting this team to handle adversity and adopt a “next man up” philosophy throughout a season that has seen his squad decimated by injury. Sunday in New Jersey must have been particularly frustrating in that regard. Just when it looked like the offense might field its most complete squad in weeks, James Conner went out with a quad injury, Maurkice Pouncey with a knee and, after looking sharp in relief of the ineffective Duck Hodges, quarterback Mason Rudolph went down with an injury to his shoulder. With Rudolph out next week, Tomlin will either promote Paxton Lynch to back up Hodges or will dust off the single wing offense from the 1930s.
Bottom line: It hasn’t been easy for Tomlin this season, and the fact the Steelers have been in every game but one since Ben Roethlisberger went down in week two speaks volumes about his ability to prepare a football team. Some will scoff at this notion but the Steelers are outperforming talented squads like the Cowboys and Rams who have been far healthier. Coaching matters in the NFL, and the fact a Steelers team that has been quarterbacked by Rudolph and Hodges since mid-September remains in the playoff hunt heading into the final week of the season is exhibit A in that regard.
To James Conner
A body that doesn’t betray him. It’s impossible not to love Conner, given his fight to overcome cancer and the fact he is talented, plays hard and seems like an ideal teammate. I don’t know if or how the dozen or so rounds of chemotherapy he endured while fighting the disease affected his body. Did the chemo weaken him in some way that has pre-disposed him to injury? Conner tore an MCL as a rookie in 2017, missed a few weeks in 2018 with a leg injury and has battled both upper and lower body injuries most of this season. Then again, Conner’s cancer was revealed as he was rehabbing an MCL injury he suffered while playing in college. He may just be susceptible to injury due to his hard-charging style of play. Anything Santa can do to shield Conner from injury in 2020 would be appreciated. The young man deserves better, and the Steelers are more effective on offense when he is in the lineup than without him.
To Juju Smith-Schuster
His mojo back. Some combination of no Antonio Brown, no Ben Roethlisberger and a troubling knee injury have conspired to play Dr. Evil to Juju’s Austin Powers, stealing his mojo and significantly reducing his effectiveness. Juju has caught 71 fewer balls this season than last (40 vs 111), has had trouble separating from defenders and hasn’t seemed as explosive with the football in his hands. Next season, with a (hopefully) healthy Ben Roethlisberger back and a blossoming pair of young receivers in Diontae Johnson and James Washington in the lineup beside him, chances are we will see more of the 2018 Juju than this season’s incarnation. An off-season injection of mojo, which for Juju means working hard with Roethlisberger and reveling in his fun-loving, playful nature, sure would help.
To Minkah Fitzpatrick
An off-season and training camp to really dive into the intricacies of the Steelers defensive playbook and bond with his teammates. Fitzpatrick has been sensational since coming to the Steelers in a bold week three trade that sent Pittsburgh’s first round pick in this spring’s draft to Miami. As good as he’s been, he has not yet had OTA or camp work to develop chemistry with his secondary mates or to work on the fundamental aspects of defense that are often over-looked once a team gets into its regular season slate. Things like run fits, pursuit angles, ball drills, two-on-one tackling, turnover circuits and half-field coverage drills are all essential in developing communication and relationships between defenders in various situations. Most of these drills are emphasized in OTAs and at training camp but are jettisoned during the regular season as teams spend more time game-planning for specific opponents than on developing techniques and fundamentals. With a Steelers’ secondary likely to return in tact and an off-season to bond together, look for Fitzpatrick to be even more effective in 2020.
To T.J. Watt
The DPOY. Analysts have surmised that Watt or New England’s Stephon Gilmore are the leading candidates for the award. Gilmore, for as good as he’s been, has also enjoyed another par-for-the-course season for the New England Machine, which seems to churn out twelve win seasons with all the inevitability of fall becoming winter and winter giving way to spring. Watt, on the other hand, has been the best player on a defense tasked with leading a one-legged Pittsburgh team on a race to the playoffs. TJ leads the league with six forced fumbles, is third with 14 sacks and has demonstrated a penchant for making big plays at opportune times, such as his strip-sack of Jets QB Sam Darnold on Sunday that allowed the Steelers to tie the football game just before halftime.
Watch the swat and club move he uses to beat Jets tackle Brandon Shell around the edge, how he accelerates once he turns the corner and then the awareness he has to hammer the ball out of Darnold’s hand as he makes contact.
This is a brilliant combination of speed, power and technique resulting in yet another splash play for Watt. Admittedly, I’m biased in Watt’s favor. But he’s the DPOY. No doubt about it.
To Ben Roethlisberger
The Keto diet. Or the Zone. The Atkins. Weight Watchers. Something. I get that he’s been largely immobile for three months. But I mean, come on. Big Ben looks way more like Brett Keisel right now than he does an NFL quarterback. I still believe he has some good football left in him. It just might be at defensive tackle if he doesn’t shed thirty pounds. Roethlisberger has said he won’t shave his beard until he’s able to throw a football again. That’s fine. Hopefully he hasn’t taken the same pledge about simple exercise.
On a serious note, I do wish for Roethlisberger to return with a burning desire to win a Super Bowl and cement his legacy as one of the all-time great quarterbacks. Big Ben does not strike me as one who will go meekly into retirement, allowing an elbow injury to write his final chapter. As Dylan Thomas famously wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night... rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” For the sake of Steelers fans everywhere, let’s hope Big Ben returns in 2020 ready to rage.
To Ramon Foster
A happy retirement. It’s been a heck of a career for the undrafted player out of Tennessee. Foster has given the Steelers 11 solid seasons, the last eight of them as a starter. But he’s 33 now and time has taken a toll on his legs. Foster is tragically slow when pulling, plays too high at the line of scrimmage and just can’t get it done the way he once did. Foster has a year left on his contract at $4 million so it’s unlikely the Steelers will simply cut him and take the cap hit. But they need an upgrade at the guard position in the worst way and would be wise to seek a replacement in free agency or use an early draft pick to address the need.
To Chris Boswell
The Comeback Player of the Year award. I doubt they’ll give it to a kicker but it was a heck of a season for “The Boz,” who, after his nightmare 2018 campaign, has rebounded by hitting 27 of 29 field goals and all 26 of his extra points. Boswell’s return to Pro Bowl form has gone largely unnoticed in this season of Minkah and Duck-mania. But his contributions have been significant and bode well for the future, where a (hopefully) playoff-bound Steelers’ team will need him to come up big again in 2020.
To Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph
A lot of clipboard toting in 2020. Thank you for your service, gentlemen. Now please remove your helmets, put on a baseball cap and take your rightful place charting plays on the sideline as Big Ben reclaims the offense.
To Randy Fichtner
Serenity now! Maybe a long vacation on a remote island with lots of rum drinks. Anything to help him forget about this nightmare of a season on offense.
Fichtner has been Public Enemy No. 1 in the blogosphere, as Steelers’ fans have lambasted him for his unit’s anemic performance. In his defense, what the hell would you do with Duck Hodges, Deon Cain, Tevin Jones, Kerith Whyte and Johnny Holton as prominent participants in your offense? Everyone loves to criticize Fichtner (including me at times), but he’s been dealt an impossible hand with which to play. Given the fact the Steelers offense is built heavily around Ben Roethlisberger, Fichtner also had to completely re-make it once Big Ben went down. The fact he struggled to do so is frustrating for fans but not an indictment of Fichtner’s capability as an OC altogether.
Only Fichtner’s dismissal will pacify the angry hordes, but to fire a guy who was deprived of much of his arsenal seems reactionary. Fichtner can certainly improve as a coordinator. The run game has been bad in both his seasons at the helm, the offense lacks misdirection and deception and the tight ends need to be more involved as receivers. None of this is unfixable, however. Given the chemistry he enjoys with Roethlisberger, I expect Fichtner to return in 2020. Let’s just hope he does so with a healthy starting eleven and a fresh approach in his pocket.
To Kevin Colbert
The wisdom of a sensei to guide him through the upcoming draft and off-season. Each are crucial to this franchise and Colbert has precious few resources with which to work. The Steelers are without their first and third round draft picks (though they may reclaim a compensatory 3rd-rounder for releasing Donte Moncrief) and, as usual, are expected to be tight to the salary cap and without the resources to be significant players in free agency. They may have to replace Bud Dupree at outside linebacker and could use an upgrade on the offensive line and some speed at the skill positions. Colbert will have to be on his game to get it all done.
Speaking of Bud Dupree
The realization that he loves Pittsburgh and can’t envision himself playing anywhere else. This will prompt him to re-sign with the Steelers on a cap-friendly deal (of course). What the heck? If you’re asking Santa for gifts you may as well go big or go home.
And finally, to all Steelers fans
The wisdom to understand we went about as far as we could this season and, all things considered, most likely over-achieved. The defense is back to being championship-caliber and the offense, though abysmal at times, will look a lot different next season with Roethlisberger returning and hopefully a few upgrades in key spots. Any time you don’t win the Super Bowl it’s disappointing (and hey, we’re not officially eliminated yet so anything is possible!). But, given the reality of the situation, fans are likely to be disappointed. This team could be well-positioned to compete for a title next season, however, and that should provide Steeler Nation some comfort and joy.
Merry Christmas everyone. And as always, go Steelers!