Looking for some good news? The first quarter of 2014 beats the hell out of the first quarter of 2013. That could be called damning with faint praise, I know, but it's also called perspective. If last season placed an exclamation mark on anything to those capable of attending to the big picture of an NFL season (a lot to ask of some apparently, but I can be stubborn), it is that, while certainly possible, September doesn't necessarily make or break a season. Last year at this time Pittsburgh was 0-4. It's impossible to do worse than 0-4.
As they say, however, numbers don't always tell the whole story. My guess is that, if you were asked a month ago if a 2-2 record after the first quarter of the season was acceptable, most likely you would have shrugged and answered in the affirmative. Thoughtful observers knew this was a team full of young players and other newcomers who might struggle early to get their feet underneath them. You hoped for the best of course but, at minimum, you wanted them to avoid digging the type of hole for themselves that would require the sort of heroic exertions they needed in their attempt to salvage the 2013 season. But that was just the theory.
In practice we now know that there is 2-2, and then there is 2-2 (!).
The template for the first quarter of 2014 was set in the season opener against the Browns. It would be one thing if the Steelers were just bad. But what's on display is an inconsistency that can only be described as being, quite literally, maddening. It would seem that Pittsburgh finally has a team that has the capacity to match the extreme mood swings of its fan base. They are Jekyll and Hyde. Advanced placement one moment and special needs the next. They ace Mozart and then are discombobulated by Chopsticks. It took talent and a coordinated effort by all three phases to lose that game to the Bucs. They pulled it off with just seven seconds to spare. Brilliant. Observing from a distance, one imagines that having three rivers and the most numerous collection of bridges in the world might come in handy if this pattern continues (joining some Pirates fans I would guess in not the best week for Pittsburgh sports).
The thing is, it would be easier if they just stunk. You declare it a bad batch, fire or euthanize everyone and start over. But that would just be the frustration talking (perhaps augmented by some combination of caffeine, liquor, bad drugs and gambling debts). It really is way too premature to be contemplating torture and executions. Plenty of time for that later (Tomlin is a Game of Thrones fan. He would understand. Who knows? Some of that may be going on behind closed doors as I speak).
Getting specific, what have we actually learned to this point?
A state of flux
I'm not convinced that we're absolutely certain who the Steelers, or many other teams in this league, actually are at this point. For example, are Andy Reid and the Chiefs as good as they showed this week? Are Belichick, Brady and the Pats as bad? So much of how we view teams is based upon what they showed the previous season. In September, we begin to distinguish between who they were and who they are. What makes it even more interesting is that, often, who they are isn't settled just yet. Not only are we unclear as to whom the Steelers are but, citing just one example, who is Carolina at this point? Are they the team that rolled into the playoffs last season and was so impressive the first two weeks of 2014, or the squad that got steamrolled by the Pittsburgh and the Ravens the last two weeks? One piece of that puzzle for the Steelers will be how they respond to the punch in the gut they received this week.
The Steelers have shown that they can be a good football team. But the shadow side of the equation isn't a mirage either.
The mental game
Pittsburgh has demonstrated the physical capacity to play winning football. What they lack is mental toughness that has clearly manifested in a number of ways.
You can't fault Antonio Brown for his talent, work ethic and toughness. His Achilles Heel is his need to showboat to the extent that it draws penalties. Unnecessary, selfish and devastating coming from one who is now a team leader.
Pre-snap penalties (lack of focus), over aggression, which is indicative of lack of focus, lack of faith (staying within one's self and doing one's job and understanding and trusting the system), lack of situational awareness (For example, does AB need a clean block from you, much less a block in the back in order to break a return?). Trying too hard can be just as bad as not trying hard enough. Some want to put all of this on the coaches. Maybe, but I doubt it. If the player doesn't know the difference between right and wrong then that's on the coach. Inconsistency of execution is likely to be on the player, particularly a professional. Coaching can create awareness, set priorities and influence confidence. But as they say, you can lead a horse to water...
Good news and bad here. Compared to last season in absolute terms these are good times. Three starters had been lost for the season in the first quarter last year. Several other players missed time or were limited due to injuries suffered the previous year or in preseason. Though the situation this season is not nearly as bad, the need for developing cohesion and consistency is such that loss of playing time due to even minor injuries can have more than a nuisance impact in the near and long term.
How the team got to 2-2 was annoying. Lost a game they should have won. Blew out a team that most were counting as a loss. Were scheduled to play two divisional opponents in the span of four days. 3-1 was a real possibility. On the other hand they earned that 2-2 record. This is an immature team. And I'm not just talking about the younger players. For example, let's take Brown who, in addition to the antics that drew a penalty against the Bucs, dropped a catchable ball that could have put the game away. Now on one level it's unfair to fault a man who has played such a huge role in what success the team has had thus far. But if those mistakes hadn't cost them now, they almost certainly would cost them later when the opponents are tougher and the stakes higher. And that's true precisely because Brown is a leader, so his behavior and mindset is likely to be contagious among his younger and impressionable peers. In that sense, 2-2 could be a blessing, 3-1 a curse when taking the long view. This is a group that has to learn and understand that talent isn't enough to play at championship level. They know how to say the right words, but they obviously don't understand, not yet at least.
Earlier I suggested that this team mirrored the fan base in terms of its mood swings. Another similarity might be a sense of entitlement. The 70s Steelers rarely, if ever, lost to weaker teams. I suspect that part of the reason is because most of their players had been part of teams that had struggled and lost. This resulted in players like Joe Greene, who may have hated losing more than he liked winning. In this regard, a couple of difficult, humiliating losses along with a good scare might be a necessary-if-painful ingredient in a recipe for long-term success.
Coaching and management
One of the things that we can begin to evaluate is the relative success of the off-season moves and acquisitions made by the front office and the team-building efforts by the coaching staff. This early in the year it's too early to assess many of these things, but we speak to one progress report that appears to be a significant success. Mission accomplished on revitalizing and reestablishing the Pittsburgh Steelers ground attack.
With so much talk over the past couple of years about the failures of the 2008 and 2009 drafts, it's only fair to point out in some detail what went into the building of the Steelers ground attack. The runners in that particular room consist of two draft choices (second and third rounds) an UDFA fullback and a free agent. An offensive line that has been built over a five- year period consisting of two first-round draft picks considered on the short list of being the best at their positions league- wide, two second-rounders, one seventh-rounder and two free agents. Finally, two staff additions including an offensive line coach and a running backs coach. In other words, it took a lot of moves over a period of time to put together what some believe is the most potent running attack in the league.
We mentioned in the season preview that the team had been making moves aggressively throughout the winter, spring and summer, and that they might not be finished yet. Sure enough, the latest move was to coax James Harrison out of retirement last week. And it's unlikely that they're done yet. And while the situation of the defensive secondary is something of an open wound in the minds of some, it's rare in today's NFL that teams have the resources to adequately upgrade all of their needs. Though not all the decisions and choices made could be judged as effective to this point, most are being viewed as moving the team in the right direction.
Though inconsistent like everything else at this early stage of the season, when running on all cylinders, the offense fulfilled the most extravagant predictions about its potency. This in spite of the absence for most of the season's first quarter of wide receivers Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant, and running back Dri Archer.
Quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger has the time and arguably the most impressive array of tools at his disposal in his career. As a consequence there have been moments when it appears the only thing that could stop the Steelers' offense was the Steelers themselves. Unfortunately, the Steelers have proven to be somewhat adept at doing just that. By far, the scariest and most effective weapon has been Ben's collaboration with Antonio Brown. Three of their four touchdown connections have been the stuff of highlight reels. If there's one complaint, it would be about some of his decision-making. He still exhibits the tendency to swing for the fences (the deep ball) at times when a couple of singles might put an opponent away.
Running backs and Oline. Covered somewhat already, this combo isn't just effective but is being touted by some as on its way to being the class of the league. The formula for success would seem to be a simple one going forward: stay healthy.
Wide receivers and tight end. Remember when one of the big off-season questions was how the team would survive the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery? The answer has been Markus Wheaton. So much so that even though Lance Moore has yet to log in any significant action and there is the possibility that this will be a redshirt season for rookie Martavis Bryant, there's not much concern for this group and no one is missing Sanders even though he appears to be doing well in Denver.
If you want to be picky, Heath Miller is probably not playing as well as he was during the 2012 campaign so far.
Lost in the drama has been some inconsistency from Shaun Suisham. Brad Wing has done fine, except for what was the most important punt of the season so far. Someone needs to explain that the greatest potential impediment to Antonio Brown's success at a punt returner is the belief of some of his teammates that their illegal blocks are essential to that success.
It's no surprise that this unit has struggled early. Nonetheless, it's somewhat disorienting to see that which has been the pride and the rock of this team humbled to the extent that it has. They've been trending in the right direction in their ability to thwart the run. And if you need further encouragement, consider this: in 2010, the Steelers were perched on the edge of victory and 4-0 record. Charlie Batch had successfully led the team to a lead over the Baltimore Ravens, and after a successful goal-line stand, highlighted by two big plays by William Gay, the team played it safe, running down the clock and then punting the ball away hoping that the defense could keep the Ravens' offense from marching into the end-zone from approximately the fifty yard line with less than a minute left to play. They failed. But it was considered no big deal given that their 3-1 record was achieved without Ben, who was serving out a four-game suspension. That was a Super Bowl year by the way.
What to look for during the second quarter
You want to critique coaching? Check out the consistency of effort and engagement regardless of the results. Do they stay the course or succumb to the panic and frustration expressed by fans and the media? A big piece of the answer will come this week in Jacksonville and, if successful, just as importantly if they can piece together two successful efforts in a row at Cleveland.
What will be the consistency of the kicking game? Will Wing's game deteriorate, necessitating another merry-go-round of punters? Will Suisham settle into a new normal where misses occur more regularly?
How big is James Harrison's upside? Or have we seen it already?
Will Dri Archer continue to be a rumor? Or will he step up and take his place along with Bell and Blount?
What happens with the #3 receiver slot? You would think that in order to keep it Justin Brown is going to have to up his game some. How will Moore and Bryant fit in, if at all?
Do Ryan Shazier and/or Ike Taylor make it back during this time frame? If so what would be the value of their efforts?
Will their luck hold and they continue to be spared a catastrophic injury?
Is what they're showing the best we can expect from free-agent additions Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas?
Will any of the young players such as Stephon Tuitt begin to emerge?
Will this team find an identity or will it still be a mystery at the halfway mark?