There was almost something scripted about it. I'm sitting with Homer J watching the game on Sunday, and I had this feeling before, though it usually has been associated in recent years with the Oakland Raiders. It was one of those games with its share of mistakes, wrong turns and screw-ups (not just the Steelers, btw). It appeared that Pittsburgh was just a little too good to lose, but time is winding down now and the Bucs are driving. Who knows what might happen?
Homer doesn't like it, not one bit. He sees something coming and so do I, but I'm clinging to denial. I'm betting on a close call followed by a week of scolding the team for scaring the bejesus out of us. And it looks like I'm right. The Bucs' offense goes flaccid on third and fourth down as passes go incomplete in the end zone. I make a mental note to make certain that Brice McCain, the defender on the play, receives proper credit for a pretty good game.
All that has to be done now is to run out the clock. Like in the movies, the sun peeks out from behind the clouds. Birds are singing and that sweet flute music is playing in the background as we begin to celebrate. Nobody notices at first that it has gotten dark again. Then a hand reaches out of the ground and grabs us collectively by the ankles and drags us down. French horns and kettle drums replace the flutes. The birds are dead. There's the sound of someone starting a chainsaw. Oh no.
The Steelers lose and (of course!) the sky turns red and the demons are unleashed. Zombies and cannibals roam the streets, airwaves and internet, cursing at the top of their lungs, thirsting for blood and suffering. Patriot Nation must have viewed this as hilarious, until Monday night that is. And their skies turned red as well. Perhaps the Pirates can distract us. No? Damn. It has been that kind of week.
The first quarter
I know you realize this but it's worth mentioning that this is not college football. Neither one loss, nor even two losses, puts you out of contention for a championship. Even ugly, ignorant losses don't count for more than one defeat that's more noble and dignified. But such is the talk of the rational mind and, as Neal Coolong put it, emotions were pretty raw in the wake of that one. Once you accept that no one will be impaled, pelted with tomatoes or otherwise publicly shamed, then you can begin to recognize the opportunities that this kind of loss can carry.
The first is what we like to refer to as the teaching moment. Humiliation has its advantages. Even better is that a lot of good things happened on Sunday as well. The victory will go into the win column for Tampa Bay but, to revive a classic Tomlinism, this was a textbook case of Steelers beating Steelers. And there is always hope that you can do something about the Steelers. Coaches love mistakes and screw-ups in the sense that it gives them plenty to work with. Even better, it was very egalitarian. Offense, defense, special teams, starters, stars and role players all contributed. What remains to be seen is what happens next. Will the team get better, worse or continue its inconsistent wobbling?
The facts moving forward are that this team is in much better shape than a year ago, and not in bad position for a young, transitioning team expected to struggle some early. Issues that have dogged the team for several years; poor offensive line play, an anemic rushing attack, a rash of injuries to key personnel are not a concern (so far). And some of this year's problem areas such as rushing defense is clearly improving as the season wears on. It would be a shame if the season was derailed because of a loss of perspective.
Even in the best of times, head coach Mike Tomlin is a lightning rod for a certain class of fan. So no surprise that he, his top lieutenants, co-managers and bosses were up for scrutiny and criticism. It's appropriate to a point. But as they say, when you point a finger someone, you're pointing three back at yourself. There comes a point when the credibility of the critic begins to come under greater scrutiny than the object of the criticism. In this sense and as bad as the team looked, the reaction of some, including some who imagine themselves professionals, had them come away looking worse. In a move that I found welcome and probably necessary, Tomlin pushed back on how some would seem to want to characterize him and his coaching style. Some also sought to bait the players into participating in the game as well, looking for clarification of what "undisciplined" might mean and who would be at fault for its occurrence.
Lost in the unhappy ending was a very happy beginning that should resonate long after impact of the game's results have faded. Sean Spence's long, difficult journey back from what many believed to be a catastrophic, career-ending injury reached a victorious milestone when he was introduced to the Heinz Field crowd and started for the first time in the NFL. Here is Spence's first-hand account of the big day.
A happy resurrection was also celebrated when James Harrison donned the black and gold and played probably to a greater extent than expected after a brief retirement. With Jarvis Jones out of commission until November at least, and with concern growing somewhat over the need for the outside linebackers to step up some in the pass rush, it appears that Deebo will be making more than token contributions to the Steelers' defense. We also are being enticed with the statements that he may be able to perform to something more than just a shell of his former self.
The No. 1 wideout was part of both the good and bad news coming out of the Bucs game, with the good far outweighing the bad. For the second consecutive game he accounted for two crowd-pleasing touchdown receptions and, in the process, broke an NFL record. He has drawn fire from myself and others for a celebration routine that went a bit over the line and drew yet another penalty for a team that made far too many. Brown was contrite to a point, but he also pushed back a bit. The truth is that the negatives will blow over, perhaps as soon as the next win. The positives show no sign of abating and will resonate long after our little community tantrum has dissipated.
Also lost in the drama was one of Heath Miller's best performances. Stylistically, AB and Miller couldn't be more different, meaning that Heath's value might not be as broadly appreciated. And it's fair to say that full recognition of his effort was another casualty of Sunday's loss.
As is pointed out in this piece, the team isn't grading that badly in its performance. This may bode well for the future.
Questions are being raised over the No. 3 wide receiver spot. The question being whether the play of Justin Brown is sufficient to justify favoring him over Lance Moore. Looking ahead, it might be interesting to see if similar questions are eventually raised over the distribution of reps for the running backs.
Whatever might have been for the free-agent punter will forever be unknown as his contract was terminated by the team this week.
The defensive end was fined by the league for 'unsportsmanlike' behavior when he took umbrage to a non-call when Sean Spence appeared to be held on a Tampa Bay score. Even the normally diplomatic Tomlin acknowledged that he too would have probably been penalized if he had been within earshot. The Steelers weren't the only ones making mistakes out there.
The rookie defensive end has been having problems getting on the field. This probably doesn't mean that there's a problem with his development beyond the normal learning curve for a first-year player. That, along with the fact that defensive end play has not been one of the major problem areas for this year's defense.
The film room
As always, you might want to check out what Paper Champions has dialed up concerning the team's play. It rarely fails to provide key information that may have been overlooked during the first viewing.
If it results in a clean win, Sunday's game against Jacksonville can't come quickly enough. God help us all if they lose. Another good news item submerged by the loss was that the team got away pretty clean on the injury front. Not unexpectedly, Ryan Shazier and Ike Taylor will continue to be out. Ramon Foster will return. Markus Wheaton has a groin issue but is listed as probable. There are a couple of others who have been dealing with non-football-related illness issues. Generally speaking, a healthy team will be traveling to Florida to play the Jags.
The Jaguars' starting quarterback is a rookie who is being compared favorably to Ben Roethlisberger in ability. However, Ben didn't have to face a Dick LeBeau defense when he was a rookie other than in practice. Bortles is expected to receive the full LeBeau rookie hazing on Sunday.
Goodell and league matters
There are signs that the fallout from his handling of various recent issues has begun to have an effect on the support the Commissioner is receiving for some of his initiatives such the internationalization of the sport.
On another front, we couldn't have known it at the time, but the lopsided loss the Steelers suffered in Baltimore has been part of a consistent trend with what is increasingly appearing to be an ill-advised move by the league to a full slate of Thursday night games. All of the games have been unsightly blowouts that will likely result in losing a significant portion of their audience. Add the fact that these are all divisional matchups as opposed to, for example, less critical inter-conference games, and it's not a very big leap to view this as a move motivated by greed as opposed to what would advance the sport.
In media-related matters, the FCC has changed its policy as it relates to blackouts, removing a justification the league has been able to use to try to force fans into their stadiums. A new deal has been forged between the league and DirectTv and its Sunday Ticket package.
The Steelers Way
Former player and Steelers broadcaster Tunch Ilkin has a book out that speaks to the values that have been central to the Pittsburgh community and the Steelers franchise.