If you were anything like me, you were inundated with text messages as you watched the Steelers take on the Eagles in Pittsburgh’s second preseason game at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field last Thursday night.
It’s rather commonplace in modern times of sports watching. Only, the texts I was receiving this time around were to alert me that the Steelers had traded for inside linebacker Joe Schobert. Those text messages inspired me to use the Google machine to research Schobert’s career that began with the Browns as a 2016 fourth-round out of Wisconsin. Schobert gained a reputation as a prolific tackler while in Cleveland and even earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2017. Schobert parlayed four years of consistent production into a really good contract with the Jaguars in 2020.
Now, he’s in Pittsburgh—and for just a sixth-round pick. Why? The Jaguars are rebuilding and were undoubtedly looking to get out from under a $53 million contract that isn’t set to expire until after the 2024 campaign.
Teams who are rebuilding do those sorts of things. Teams that are always looking to get better and remain relevant acquire players like Schobert when they become available.
The Steelers have always been about contending and remaining relevant. Seriously, when was the last time Pittsburgh seemed resigned to its fate as a non-contender? You can’t even point to the 2003 season when the team finished 6-10. I say this because head coach Bill Cowher and Co. were doing everything they could to stay in the AFC North race almost until the bitter end. The Steelers even took the division-champion Ravens into overtime in the '03 regular-season finale before succumbing to defeat. A victory would almost certainly have caused Pittsburgh to miss out on the chance to draft quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the following spring. But the Steelers weren’t thinking about draft positioning at the time, not when they were calling fake punts that went for touchdowns and doing everything they could to hurt Baltimore’s postseason momentum.
And the Steelers were officially eliminated from the playoffs before the game even started.
You can imagine how serious the Steelers are about contending for the postseason when they’re still eligible to make it. I know this because, with the exception of one lousy Week 17 game against the Browns back in 2012, the Steelers have always been alive for the playoffs during Mike Tomlin’s tenure. And it never seems to matter what the experts are predicting before the season starts or how tenuous the postseason looks late in the year. As long as the Steelers are still alive, they will do all that they can to contend and make the playoffs.
It would have been easy for the Steelers to truly move on from Roethlisberger after last season. Think about it, if they didn’t believe they had a real chance to compete in 2021, why bring back their aging quarterback, even at a reduced rate? Why not just sign Dwayne Haskins off the scrap heap and see if you can develop his first-round talents on the cheap?
And if you don’t want to go that route, why not just draft a quarterback in the first round and allow him to grow with the rest of the team, a la Roethlisberger back in 2004?
The 2019 season is another example.
If there was ever a time when the Steelers could have thrown in the towel and decided to go for the highest draft choice, it was early in the 2019 campaign when Roethlisberger was lost for the season with a major elbow injury.
But how did Pittsburgh respond? By immediately trading its 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick as a means to shore up a defense that would have to carry it the rest of the way. I’ll bet the Dolphins, who were in total tank mode in an effort to secure the number one overall pick, thought they were going to parlay that trade into yet another high draft choice. After all, Fitzpatrick may have been an exceptional talent, but you can’t win anything without a franchise quarterback.
The Steelers did everything they could to win, however. With the help of a dominant defense, they stayed in the playoff race until the final week and turned a 1-4 start into an 8-8 finish. As for Miami, it had to settle for the 18th overall pick to go along with its own top-five choice.
In December of 2013, my then-boss gave me two free tickets to the Steelers/Bengals game at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football. Pittsburgh was 5-8, and my boss, who was about to turn 72, had no desire to sit in the bitter cold to see a football team that was going nowhere.
The Steelers won that night and two more times after that. They were still alive for the AFC’s final seed hours after defeating the Browns in the regular-season finale at Heinz Field. If not for a missed field goal by the Chiefs Ryan Succop all the way out on the West Coast, they would have made it.
Did the Steelers get a perennial All-Pro with the acquisition of Schobert? No, but they got someone who makes them stronger at inside linebacker.
It would have been easy for Pittsburgh to start the year with Robert Spillane starting alongside Devin Bush.
The Steelers may have resigned themselves to the possibility that Bush would struggle early in the season as he worked his way back into top form following an ACL tear last fall.
They may have allowed both Spillane and Bush to work through their issues with covering tight ends. They could have tried to scheme that away with the help of a Terrell Edmunds or Fitzpatrick.
Instead, they went out and traded for a player who, in addition to his tackling prowess, is darn good in pass coverage. In other words, Pittsburgh did what a team truly serious about contending would do.
You can say a lot of things about the Pittsburgh Steelers, but you can never say they don’t care about winning.