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5 Steelers notes and observations after the Steelers vs. Titans tilt, Part 1

There was plenty to decipher after the Steelers wild Week 15 win over the Titans at Heinz Field.

Syndication: The Tennessean George Walker IV / / USA TODAY NETWORK

I’ve got a problem when it comes to the Steelers: I always have too much to say. Too many thoughts. Too many opinions. Too much. Since it takes a while to throw together a meaningful essay, I usually just wind up grinding my teeth in my apartment, or ranting on the phone to my dad (the only other person on the planet who will go down the various Steelers rabbit-holes with me). But this week, I’m overflowing.

So here’s Part 1 of a two-part response to the Steelers late-season stretch run. Consider it a dozen individual essays, condensed down to pocket-sized versions. Stay tuned for Part 2.

1 – The Titans meeting on the Steelers logo pre-game was bush league. And stupid.

Remember 2008? When LenDale White stomped on a Terrible Towel after the Titans beat the Steelers in week 16? Remember how the Titans were the AFC’s #1 seed that year, and the only team all season that rolled up 300 yards on that legendary Steelers defense? Remember how the Titans went 1-and-done in the playoffs, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl? Yeah, that last part is the only thing that anyone still talks about, because the 2008 Titans don’t matter. Bad karma is no joke.

I like Mike Vrabel. He seems like a good guy, and I think he’s a good coach. He was also drafted by the Steelers, and played here for four years. Moreover, he actually grew up near me and went to a rival high school (he was two years ahead of me in school). So generally speaking, I tend to root for him. But that was low quality. And his team should have known better.

I never liked JuJu Smith-Schuster dancing on other teams’ logos by himself for Tiktok. But I always got the impression that most of the team didn’t even know he was doing that; it was just one idiot being an idiot. The Titans coordinated their stunt; their whole roster was in on it. Vrabel’s old coach, Bill Belichick, would have never let that happen.

Also, I know that didn’t exactly qualify as “taunting” (and I don’t know how to enforce that even if it was, since it’s not during the game), but that was just about the definition of bad sportsmanship.

2 – My favorite play of the game was Zack Gentry’s 17 yard catch and run in the 3rd quarter.

This won’t make most highlight reels, but it was awesome. It was one play after Pat Freiermuth left the game with a concussion. And Gentry didn’t just make a nice screen move for a few extra yards; he absolutely mack-trucked multiple Titans defenders for one of the longest plays of the game.

More importantly, the Titans clearly believed they were the more physical team, and had just sent a tough kid to the blue tent. And his backup came right in and stomped those same defenders. Outstanding.

3 – Joe Haden is the key to the Steelers defense.

Here’s a controversial observation: I think one reason the Steelers run defense has struggled the last month is that Joe Haden’s backups need extra help. Which means that Keith Butler can’t commit as many people to the box as needed.

Haden’s presence against Tennessee didn’t exactly lead to a shut-down of the Titans run game, but Tennessee is a good rushing team. They’re built to run, even without Derrick Henry in uniform, so they were going to run alright. But I think everyone else on the Steelers’ D was able to play a lot looser and more aggressive with Haden on the field, and that that led to a lot more disruption of the offense’s plans (leading to an interception and five fumbles, three of which were recovered by Pittsburgh).

If the Steelers do anything in the late-season (or, god forbid, postseason) I think it will have to be with Joe Haden on the field.

4 – That said, T.J. Watt needs to be the Defensive Player of the Year.

T.J. leads the league in sacks (with his team record 17.5) and is in position to challenge the NFL record. When it’s all said and done, he may wind up leading the league in sacks, tackles for losses, quarterback hits, and quarterback pressures. (This wouldn’t even be out of character; he led the league in all those categories last year too.)

But more importantly, he keeps coming up huge in huge moments. We already saw him record two sacks in overtime against Seattle, including forcing the game-sealing fumble. We saw him recover the game-sealing fumble against Cleveland. We saw him record 3.5 sacks against Lamar Jackson and Baltimore, and then blow-up the two-point PAT that won the game. And now we saw him record a sack and fumble recovery in the second half of a huge and shocking comeback against Tennessee.

And not to gild the lily, but he’s doing it without much help. Last year, he had Bud Dupree (8.5 sacks in 11 games) on the opposite side, and Stephon Tuitt (11.5 sacks) in front of him. That’s a lot fewer double-teams for our man to contend with.

Does DPOY record the best stats? T.J. has it. Does it record the player who makes the greatest highlights? T.J. has it. Does it recognize the guy who rises up in the highest pressure? T.J. has it. Does it record the guy who does the most with the least help? However you slice it, T.J. has it.

If he’s not Defensive Player of the Year, then the award is meaningless.

5 – In fact, T.J. Watt ought to be NFL MVP this season.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been noticing a lot of confusion among NFL talking heads about who’s going to win MVP this year. The lazy answer is always, “the quarterback on the #1 seed is always the winner, unless some running back threatens Eric Dickerson’s record.” That’s such a lame answer. But this year, it’s even worse.

The de facto MVP (prior to this week) has been Tom Brady. Why? I have no idea. Because he’s putting up decent numbers? Because he’s on a winning team? Is that it? Winning is a weak rationale when the team is as stacked as Tampa. And accumulated numbers only count for so much. Yes, Brady leads the league in yards, but he’s also thrown eleven picks already, including two brought back to the house – highlighted by a game sealing pick-6 against New Orleans in week 8 (with 1:40 left in the game, and only trailing by two). Then this week, in the rematch (and at home), he committed two fourth quarter turnovers against the Saints in a 9-0 shutout loss. Is this really your MVP, NFL?

If Brady isn’t it, the other de facto MVP is probably Aaron Rodgers. But again, why? He’s putting up good numbers on a winning team? Okay, I guess. But the only news he’s made this year has all been bad. He nearly whined his way off the team in the pre-season. He got caught on camera taunting Bears fans. And he lied about his vaccination status and got caught. No one’s been saying, “wow, Aaron Rodgers is really looking impressive this year”; they’re mostly saying, “wow, Aaron Rodgers is a real pain in the neck.” He’s in line simply because the voters are in love with quarterbacks, and all the others have failed in big moments too often.

If there was EVER a year that a defender could win MVP, this is the year. And there’s T.J. Watt, playing absolutely out of his mind – statistically, by the eye-ball test, and in the biggest moments. If MVP means anything, T.J. should be the clubhouse leader right now.

Bonus Note:

Mike Tomlin would get crucified if he’d made the insane season-altering mistakes that John Harbaugh has made the last three weeks.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

As of December 19, Harbaugh’s analytics obsession has cost Baltimore TWICE in the home stretch of a season they appeared to be in control of. Two times in the last three weeks, he eschewed overtime by going for two-point PATs as the game ended. And two times, his team failed. When you have the most successful and biggest legged kicker in NFL history on your team, just waiting to kick the game-winner in OT, this is nothing short of stunning.

We get frustrated sometimes when the Steelers coaches turn conservative, but part of coaching is knowing what your team is capable of. The Steelers went for two-point PATs a lot in 2014-17, when they had the Killer B’s in uniform. They don’t do it much now because they no longer have the artillery. On the flip side, I’ve always loved Mike Tomlin’s 2019 decision to kick away at the start of overtime against Lamar Jackson, believing his D could shut down the rising MVP and steal a win in the extra period. And he was right (up until JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled in Ravens’ field goal range). Aggressiveness in that case, or conservatism in others, have been based on what his team could do. That’s what good coaching looks like.

John Harbaugh made a bad call against the Steelers (with some mitigating circumstances, to be fair — all his missing cornerbacks), and that happens sometimes. But just two weeks later, he made the exact same miscalculation, in the exact same situation, and wound up with the exact same result (a loss). I can’t think of a single time when a coach so spectacularly failed to learn from their own mistakes...

Okay, more coming. Go Steelers.