The past few seasons have seen a lot of criticism leveled against Pittsburgh's General Manager Kevin Colbert and his draft-day decisions as the Steelers' report card declined from making the Super Bowl twice in three years to back-to-back 8-8 seasons. Certain players have been labeled busts and many questions have mounted that targeted the competence of Colbert despite his long list of successful drafts as the team's GM.
While critics have screamed for the Steelers to make more investments in their secondary to adjust to the pass-happy NFL, Colbert's focus has never strayed from the objective of making the Steelers a team that can win battles at the line of scrimmage. This focus showed up in the remarkable performance that Pittsburgh had Sunday.
While there were many aspects to highlight in the Steelers' 43-18 win yesterday, one part that must not be overlooked was the dominance at the line of scrimmage that Pittsburgh had on both sides of the ball. This is following a week when the San Francisco 49ers dominated the Minnesota Vikings and limited Adrian Peterson to only 31 yards on the ground while their running back Carlos Hyde led the league in Week 1 with 168 yards and two touchdowns.
At Heinz Field on Sunday, those performances were flipped, as Hyde only gained 43-yards against the Black-and-Gold and DeAngelo Williams scored three touchdowns and gained 77 yards while the Steelers' passing offense took flight against the 49ers.
But what needs to be talked about more aren't those statistics, it's the players who were at the heart of compiling those statistics on the gridiron.
Despite missing its best player in Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers' offensive line dominated the 49ers' defensive front. Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Kelvin Beachum and even Pouncey's replacement Cody Wallace all clocked in for a solid afternoon that enabled Pittsburgh to dominate the red-zone and prevented Ben Roethlisberger from being sacked.
Last week, Jeff Hartman and I highlighted just how good the Steelers' offensive line looked in the Steelers' loss to the New England Patriots. Though there was some skepticism because they faced a not-so-highly-touted Patriots' front, their stellar performance against the 49ers shows that this unit continues to improve and has the ability to impose their will on opponents.
On the other side of the ball, Andrew Kipp and I highlighted how the defensive line and linebackers made plays against the Patriots' offense last week with two sacks and limiting their starting running back, Dion Lewis to 69-yards on the ground. Though there weren't dominating numbers in Foxborough like at home this week, there were several plays where young defensive players for the Steelers displayed explosiveness and improved fundamentals that beat Patriots' offensive linemen and turned plays that used to torch the Steelers for long gains into stops for losses.
Ryan Shazier's speed knifed through running lanes so fast that blockers couldn't lay a hand on him; Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree both looked explosive off the ball and changed the line of scrimmage. Sunday, we saw an even larger sample of those types of plays with Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Steve McLendon and others getting into the act.
However, this all falls back to the plan that has been enacted by Kevin Colbert during the past half-decade and the team's major investments in revamping the Steelers' capabilities in the trenches.
Since 2009, every first-round draft pick by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin has been either an offensive lineman, a defensive lineman or a linebacker. Though the 2009 pick, Evander "Ziggy" Hood, didn't pan out, every first-round pick from 2010-2015 has made their presence known on this team and they look to be part of the nucleus for a new era of Steelers football.
The 2010 pick, Maurkice Pouncey, is widely considered the best center in the NFL and has made the Pro Bowl in every season when he has been healthy. The 2011 pick, Cameron Heyward, led the team in sacks last season with 7.5 and received a big contract to stay with the team looking for him to be a defensive leader for years to come. The 2012 pick, David DeCastro, has shown improvement with each year in the league and could be the second-best offensive lineman on the team after Pouncey. The 2013 pick, Jarvis Jones, suffered multiple injuries in his first two seasons and did not necessarily look like a good investment coming into 2015. But he has been a force on the defensive front so far, adding 15-pounds and getting significantly stronger. The 2014 pick, Ryan Shazier, has been electric and currently leads the team with 22 tackles, a sack, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered in only his first two games of 2015. The 2015 pick, Bud Dupree, hasn't seen a lot of snaps, but in his limited play he has two sacks in two games.
Not to be overlooked, Colbert's other investments in winning the trench wars came in early rounds with second round selections such as Marcus Gilbert, Stephon Tuitt, Mike Adams and Jason Worilds. Though Adams has pretty much proven to be a bust and Worilds retired after five seasons, Gilbert and Tuitt look like good role players for the team who are integral to the Steelers' victories up front. Sean Spence as a third-round pick adds to the team's deep middle-linebacker group.
Sprinkle in some late picks such as Kelvin Beachum, Vince Williams and Daniel McCullers, plus free agent acquisitions such as Arthur Moats and undrafted free agents such as Steve McLendon and Ramon Foster, and you've got a solid group of players that can change games by winning battles up front.
We can poke fun at the lack of depth in the Steelers' secondary and the problems evident with every big pass play surrendered so far this season, but doing so should be done with a perspective that acknowledges the fact that Colbert hasn't invested a first-round pick in this secondary since 2003 when the team selected Troy Polamalu. In that same time span, there have been only two second-round draft picks chosen for the secondary; those being Bryant McFadden in 2005, a decent role player who contributed to both Super Bowl victories in the 2000s, and Senquez Golson from the most recent draft who currently is on injured reserve.
This means that Carnell Lake and the Steelers' secondary are working with a group of players comprising mid-to-low-tier free agency grabs, undrafted free agents and players selected in the fourth round or later of their respective drafts. So naturally, this isn't the part of the field where the Steelers would be winning on defense. Though the Steelers' wide receivers are also a group comprising zero picks from the first two rounds (Darrius Heyward-Bey doesn't count because he was brought in as a free agent), striking gold like Antonio Brown is a once-in-a-generation type of deal for a franchise and shouldn't be expected to be duplicated in the Steelers secondary.
Colbert's efforts have defied the prevailing wisdom in the NFL today that seemingly mandates higher investments away from the line of scrimmage and towards the secondary and wide receiving corps. Steelers fans have cried for a first-round pick at the cornerback position for years ever since Ike Taylor's age started to show. Yet Colbert has stayed the course and kept investing in building units that can dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
This season and the years to follow could be a historic statement by Colbert and Mike Tomlin about not changing the way the Steelers operate and continuing to build a tough, physical team that the franchise traditionally has fielded. Years ago, we saw this major investment begin as the Steelers already were rebuilding a strong nucleus while they were on their way to winning their league-leading eigth AFC Championship in 2010.
Now with this unit continuing to improve, Colbert's genius may become apparent to the football world once again, if these early picks continue to improve. There's still a long way to go for many of these players and much more to see, but it looks like the Steelers' organization might have another exciting ride in store for its fans during the second half of this decade.