The Pittsburgh Steelers subsist on an incessant diet of spectacle. This applies both on and off of the field.
The 2015 Steelers, for example, were an enigma, fielding one of the league’s most explosive offenses, but existing in a constant state of injury-induced disarray. The 2016 outfit wasn’t much different, only this time it was suspensions that kept Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell on the sidelines for a combined 19 games while the offense hummed along as per usual.
It was almost 10 months ago that the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots—the same Patriots who are 10-3 against the Steelers since 2002, including a trio of postseason victories—in the AFC Championship. A bitter result, to be sure, but one whose ethos was generally pretty optimistic given the impending reunion of the Killer Bs. Indeed, just a few months later, the Steelers would take the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Bryant and Bell for the first time since November 2015.
From January through the end of August, things became...weird, but not necessarily out-of-character. Consider the following:
- Roethlisberger didn’t immediately commit to playing in 2017, causing a large contingent of Steelers fans to involuntarily soil themselves (I know I did).
- The Steelers slapped the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, kick-starting a saga that ultimately lasted until early September.
- Pittsburgh drafted J.J. Smith-Schuster in the second-round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In response to this, Bryant took to social media to ensure his followers that the rookie receiver was there to take Sammie Coates’ job, not his.
- Speaking of Bryant, it came to light that he and Roethlisberger hadn’t spoken since Bryant’s season-long suspension was handed down during the previous off-season. Ben had gone on record as saying he felt that Bryant “lied” to him. Bryant, meanwhile, told reporters that didn’t agree with Roethlisberger’s course of action in talking to the press to begin with.
- Meanwhile, Ben committed to playing in 2017, but refused to further clarify his retirement plans, making it clear that each subsequent off-season would be imbued with nervousness and discontent. Thanks, guy.
- The Steelers reportedly offered Bell a sizable contract extension, one that would make him among the most highly-compensated running backs in NFL history. Bell reportedly declined this offer because he wanted to be paid like a star running back and a capable No. 2 receiver.
- Predictably, Bell held out and didn’t report to training camp, leading to a series of snarky, underhanded comments from Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin indicating that reporting to camp would be “beneficial” to Bell. Not unexpectedly, Roethlisberger provided some less-than-flattering commentary in which he questioned Bell’s conditioning.
I’m forgetting a few, but that was just the off-season! Since Week 1:
- The Steelers have seen Bell get off to a bit of a slow start, ostensibly confirming the piping hot “should’ve reported to camp!” takes.
- As a form of protest/team unity, the Steelers orchestrated what might have been the most well-intentioned but poorly-executed team demonstration before the Chicago Bears matchup in Week 3. The Steelers would lose that game in overtime to the Mike Glennon-led Bears, who are currently 3-5.
- Ben threw five interceptions in a 30-9 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, totally overshadowing the 180 yards and two touchdowns surrendered to Leonard Fournette, a player who’s absolutely lying about his age.
- Bryant reportedly wanted a trade—then didn’t—but then did again. And then confirmed that he did, but also said that he was done speaking publicly. Nevertheless, he took to social media to throw a teammate under the bus yet again, this time saying that he is “way better” than Smith-Schuster. Bryant, wanting to keep up appearances, was then hit with his third suspension in as many seasons.
- A few days later, Smith-Schuster amassed 193 receiving yards on national television while Bryant watched from the sidelines.
All told, Pittsburgh’s 6-2 start has been characterized by drama which, if nothing else, makes the season more compelling. Here are four more observations from the first half of the season:
The emergence of the defense
It’s hard to say that anything is objectively good, because doing so sparks an immediate war of attrition between the stat junkies and the guys who watch the film. By most measures, observable, quantifiable, or otherwise, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is a pretty formidable unit. The defense isn’t a dominant or historically-talented outfit. The run-defense has, at times, been utterly sieve-like while Matthew Stafford’s 400-yard outing last Sunday will do little to placate the concerns about the watered-down competition the secondary has faced to this point—but it’s talented enough to drive a Super Bowl run. And speaking of that:
The Steelers re-establishing themselves as Super Bowl frontrunners
The Steelers’ bandwagon is quickly filling, which is remarkable when considering the thousands of people who jumped ship following the anthem demonstration.
This isn’t surprising: the emergence of the defense has neatly supplemented an offense that already boasts arguably the best running back-receiver combo in NFL history, a top-tier offensive line and a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback. About that quarterback, though:
Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles
Following the Jacksonville loss, the Steelers, then 3-2, appeared to be a sinking ship piloted by an aimless captain. Roethlisberger threw five awful interceptions and later declared, albeit in jest, that he might no longer have the “it” that drove him to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. That was a damning self-indictment, and the kind of statement that can serve as a harbinger of things to come.
And it wasn’t like the Jacksonville game was an isolated incident. To that point, Ben certainly hadn’t been awful, but he distinctly lacked the offensive command befitting a 14-year veteran quarterback.
Ben has rebounded since that game, first marginally and recently more palpably. It’s no coincidence that his general aptitude as a passer has increased in accordance with the cohesion of the offensive line, which has surrendered just a single sack in the past three games after allowing nine in the first five games. If the Steelers hope to acquire their seventh Super Bowl trophy this February, Roethlisberger cannot regress to his early-season form.
The absence of Stephon Tuitt and Marcus Gilbert
The Steelers haven’t escaped the injury scourge that has seemingly plagued the entire league to this point. Gilbert and Tuitt, two of the best linemen in the NFL, have been on the shelf for the majority of the season to this point. Getting them back in the lineup will be a considerable boon to the overall vitality of the roster.
Pittsburgh’s run game (i.e. Bell) has been exceptional to this point, but the return of a player in Gilbert whose pass-blocking acumen is surpassed only by his abilities as a run-blocker will further amplify Bell’s rushing output. On the other side of the ball, it seems evident that inserting a player of Tuitt’s ability back on the right side of the defensive line will immediately placate some of those pesky run-stopping concerns. Whatever holes remain on Pittsburgh’s roster, they could very well be filled by the time they take the field against the hapless Indianapolis Colts.