Not all injuries are created equally. When the Steelers lost defensive lynchpin Ryan Shazier to a career-ending injury in 2017, there were no feasible answers to solve the season defining dilemma. How do you adequately replace the generational talents of a player that is irreplaceable in your system, a system that has been built around their truly unique abilities? The simple and obvious answer was staring the Steelers in the face.
You don't, and they didn't.
As good as Shazier was, and as important as he was to the Steelers defense back then, he doesn't begin to compare with T.J. Watt. Watt is the heart and soul of the Steelers defense. He makes everyone of his defensive cohorts even better than they already are. His mere presence instills confidence and elevates performances. That's the unfathomable impact of having the best defender walking the planet on your roster.
Let's just call it the “Mean” Joe Greene advantage.
The Steelers defense produced a solid all around effort on Sunday, without unquestionably their best player and defensive difference maker, but it turned into a day of missed opportunities for the defense, and a game changing miscue on special teams.
The Steelers are simply unable to generate any semblance of an acceptable pass rush without Watt. The same franchise that has lead the league in sacks each season for 5 years running, and totaled 7 sacks in their Week 1 road upset of Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals, looked absolutely pathetic trying to generate pressure against Mac Jones and the New England Patriots. The Steelers had zero sacks on the day. If there was any remaining doubt of Watt's greatness and importance to the Steelers defense, there isn't anymore. The Steelers apparently can't win without him.
Let's take a look at whose stock is trending in the right, or wrong, direction.
Stock Down: Opportunistic defense
What might have been? Just a week prior, the Steelers defense was creating turnovers early and often against the Bengals. The Steelers rather anemic offense desperately needed everyone of those possession changes to pull out the surprising road victory. Another week, another underwhelming Steelers offensive performance. However, this time the Steelers defense literally dropped the ball on multiple occasions when they had chances to make the offense's job a little easier.
Steelers corner Ahkello Witherspoon had tight man coverage on Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor late in the second quarter on Sunday. He was in excellent position to at least knock the ball away, if not intercept the 50/50 jump ball. Witherspoon inexplicably failed to do either, giving up a contested catch touchdown instead.
As bad as that missed opportunity was, the next one was even more tragic. Midway through the third quarter, on one of the rare occasions that the Steelers pass rush actually forced Jones out of the pocket, Jones escaped the pocket to his left. He never saw Steelers corner Cameron Sutton sitting in zone, and Jones threw the ball right to him. Sutton went to his knees to try and secure the slightly low throw, but he dropped the gift interception. At that moment, nobody fully realized how big that dropped opportunity would prove to be.
It only took a few seconds off the game clock to find out. The Steelers forced a punt, which turned into a disaster, easily the biggest momentum shifting moment of the game. Steelers punt returner; and former Patriot, Gunner Olszewski called for a fair catch, but he muffed it, giving the Patriots great field position at the Steelers ten yard line. The ensuing touchdown seemed almost inevitable.
The Steelers have the NFL's most expensive defense, and least expensive offense. The Steelers are counting on their well-paid defense to carry more than their fair share of the load. That's the way it has to be if the Steelers are going to be successful during the early part of this season, especially until the Steelers offense finds it's footing, and it's next quarterback. The Steelers can't afford missed defensive opportunities, or special teams miscues.
Stock Down: Steelers coaches
As much as it pains me to say this yet again, Bill Belichick out coached Mike Tomlin and the Steelers. I know I am committing a cardinal sin by suggesting that Tomlin shoulder any of the blame for the Steelers below the line performance Sunday, but it's the truth. The buck stops with Tomlin, he's the man in charge, so stop trying to deflect blame.
The Steelers already knew coming into the matchup that Belichick and the Patriots offense have feasted over the middle against the Steelers defense, especially the base 3-4, but seemed unprepared or unconcerned. The Steelers continue to be venerable in the middle, thanks to soft zone concepts, and their puzzling insistence to play Robert Spillane in coverage. Belichick continues to take Tomlin's lunch money, because Tomlin gives it to him.
There's really nothing left to be said about the Matt Canada/Mitch Trubisky situation, so I will leave it at this: Those are Tomlin's guys. Win, lose, or draw, you dance with the one who brought you.
All we heard about all last season was Tomlin pining away for quarterback mobility, and how he wanted an experienced signal caller when Roethlisberger hung up his cleats. Then the Steelers hand picked Mitch Trubisky out of free agency, and Kenny Pickett out of the 2022 Draft class.
So why does the offense look so similar to last season? These quarterbacks can take snaps under center, roll out, scramble, and run RPOs. Different quarterback, same inept offense. The offensive line is still struggling, but there has been some improvement over last year.
Where are all the play action plays, designed to attack the middle of the field and down the seams? The designed QB runs, utilized to slow down overzealous pass rushes? Varying the offensive tempo, and when you snap the ball? Any and all of these make your offense less predictable, which helps both your struggling QB and offensive line.
For a head coach who claims to not live in his fears, his decisions thus far this season have seemed pretty tentative to me. It appears he will have ample opportunity to make some bold decisions in the very near future.
Stock Up: Under the radar observations
DeMarvin Leal did a solid job playing his first NFL snaps on the edge, as a few insightful individuals predicted. He is a very athletic 305 pound youngster. Where the Steelers finally decide to play him moving forward in his NFL career will be crucial.
Tyson Alualu's return has brought stability to the Steelers defensive interior, and solidified the Steelers run defense, which was the league's worst without him in 2021.
Minkah Fitzpatrick had yet another huge interception, causing casual fans to maybe miss another outstanding overall effort by Terrell Edmunds, especially in pass coverage. Together they form one of the best safety tandems in the NFL.
Myles Jack is playing more physically aggressive as he becomes more comfortable within the Steelers defense. Jack and Larry Ogunjobi were two brilliant offseason acquisitions.