At least since the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers have always been viewed through a dual lens that reflects the dichotomy between a team having a rich, championship tradition and one which periodically must undergo transitional phases to remain a competitive force in the NFL. While fans' expectations tend to be based on the notion that the Steelers ought to be a perennial contender, the reality doesn't always conform to these lofty demands.
When facing this conundrum, it's useful to reach back in time and reconsider the spare-but-sage words of Charles Henry Noll, in whose honor the Steelers are playing this 2014 season:
"The critics are always right. The only way you shut them up is by winning." (Chuck Noll)
Since it's pretty obvious that last Sunday's victory in Jacksonville didn't quite fit the bill in terms of silencing the critics, we can look ahead to the showdown in Cleveland this Sunday with some measure of hope that the Steelers will heed Noll's advice. On one level, the familiar bromide "a win is a win" still rings true with many people. On the other hand, Coach Noll's career was defined principally by his teams' tendency to win convincingly against opponents at the middle or bottom of the league standings. Somewhere between these two polar opposites, we're likely to find the "happy medium" which has been so elusive during the first five games of the 2014 season.
Assuming Noll was correct (which historically has been a safe bet), the Steelers can take a great stride toward squelching their critics when they take the field against the Cleveland Browns. Overall, I'd rate Steelers fans as a pretty perceptive bunch, despite the inevitable presence of some chronic malcontents. Black-and-Gold fans generally are more perceptive precisely because they focus much more intently on their favorite team's performance week in and week out, year after year, than fans of many other NFL franchises. This doesn't mean Steelers fans inherently are any better than supporters of other NFL teams; it simply goes with the territory when your team has earned the reputation as a perennial contender, not to mention a six-time Super Bowl champion.
Given the demonstrably sharper focus of their fan base, the Steelers organization completely understands, at some point in the near future, Steelers Nation expects this team to snap out of its doldrums and begin fulfilling the shiny promise that emerged from the team's 2014 NFL Draft and training camp. In this regard, perhaps the Steelers' greatest shortcoming so far this season has been the curse of predictability on both sides of the ball. Quite clearly, opposing teams know only too well what to expect from the Steelers on any given Sunday.
From the Steelers' offense, opponents can bank on seeing a heavy dose of bubble- screens thrown to the usual suspects, along with occasional runs on second or third downs, plus a few deeper throws, typically on first downs. Defensively, opponents correctly assume that the Steelers won't apply much pressure on their QBs, while Steeler DBs are a safe bet to stay in a prevent-mode, giving generous cushions to wide receivers for grabbing relatively easy chunks of yardage.
It's precisely this predictability which largely has prevented the Steelers from capturing wins of the nature that might silence their critics. So while some observers already have used their red pens to mark "fail" on the Steelers' report card this season, a more reasonable grade at this stage might instead be "needs to improve."
But this improvement must start with greater diversification in every phase of their game. One thing which has become painfully evident so far this season is that the Steelers' opponents have a book on our basic approach and they've responded quite effectively for the most part. But rather than jump to hasty conclusions by recommending wholesale coaching or personnel changes, it seems more constructive to suggest the Steelers simply work on reducing their excessive predictability, while also getting some new faces involved in the mix.
We got a pleasant taste of this in Jacksonville when a cornerback who many felt would have trouble covering his own shadow emerged as the hero sealing the Steelers' third victory with an ever-so-timely pick-6. Likewise, this team-in-transition must find creative ways to get its full cast of characters involved on both sides of the ball. While Ben Roethlisberger utilized an uncommonly broad range of receivers against the Jaguars', it was the predictability of play-calling which actually short-circuited this "new faces" strategy. So what's called for here is doing something fundamentally different in terms of scheme, while using the full cast of characters to better advantage.
As Coach Noll knew, the veracity of your critics will always be bolstered when you fail to exploit your available talent to its full capacity. Thus, win or lose, if the Steelers believe they can reverse this negativity via the disjointed kind of effort we saw from the offense in Jacksonville, I'd say they're probably mistaken. In reality, a win is never strictly a win. Whether in victory or defeat, a team's essential character usually shows through.
Going into Cleveland on Sunday, there's a clear expectation to see something from this team that goes significantly above and beyond what we've witnessed since the big win in Carolina. This isn't a case of the Steelers' faithful being chronically dissatisfied or setting an impossible standard. It's more a matter of the Steelers taking the field against the Browns with a clearer sense of mission and seeing it through. In my book, that's not too much to ask.