Losing in the playoffs after a three-year drought is tough. Losing at home to your arch rival? That's even worse. And considering that Saturday night's Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens was a microcosm of everything that went wrong this year, from penalties to lapses in the secondary and red zone ineptitude, it's easy to get caught up in the negatives. Sure enough, calls for coach firings and the retirement of former key players were once again loud among fans following the loss. But dig a little deeper, and not all is lost. In fact, if you can bring yourself to rewatch the game, you'll find plenty of reasons to be hopeful for 2015 and beyond. Here are just a few that I found:
Going up against against a defense determined to take away his biggest strength, Martavis Bryant was left without a chance to utilize his big-play ability on the outside. Just a few weeks ago, that would have likely led to a disappearing act from the emerging rookie. What happened instead is a sign of his rapid development: he found other ways to contribute to the offense, running a variety of routes and screens on his way to 61 yards receiving. Capping his performance with an impressive TD on a fade route that showed off his height and athleticism, he also added a 6 yard run on an end-around for good measure.
The 2014 class of wide receivers is certainly spectacular, and there is no doubt that Odell Beckham Jr., Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and companions are legitimate stars in the making. But since being inserted into the lineup in week 8, Bryant's numbers can compete with any of them - and that's despite being a fourth round pick. Remember, most of us expected a complete redshirt year due to his lack of refinement. What he did instead, providing his team with a lethal deep threat along with an increasingly diverse short and intermediate game that was on display in the Ravens game, played no small part in turning his offense into one of the league's best. His work ethic has been praised by multiple writers now, and the seemingly limitless ceiling has me legitimately excited about 2015.
The Return of Bell
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Le'Veon Bell's absence had a huge effect on this game. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the less obvious aspects of his game that make him great. On Saturday, perhaps even more than his rushing and receiving ability, those skills were sorely missed. Ben Tate fumbled on the first possession, leading to the Ravens completely disrespecting the running game for the remainder of the contest. Baltimore's pass rush hit home again and again, while the Steelers were uncommonly bad on third down.
But here's the good news: the loss gives Bell plenty of time to heal his hyperextended knee. I'm not a medical expert by any means, but having him return at any point during the playoffs would have had me at the edge of my seat for entire games, worrying he'd make it worse by coming back too early. Now, he has an entire offseason to retrain his leg to the same strength and agility as before the injury, meaning we'll see a fully healthy and lethal Le'Veon Bell come September.
Defensive Line Development
Show of hands: Who thought the Steelers were in for a long night when the Ravens ran for 37 yards and a touchdown on their first scoring drive to go up 7-3? The long night part was true, but it certainly wasn't because of the run defense. Despite having the lead for most of the game, Baltimore only ran for 49 total yards. It's not like they didn't try, either; their 25 attempts (to 30 drop backs) means they averaged less than 2.0 yards per carry. In the entire second half, in perfect position to run out the clock, the Ravens ran for just 1 total yard before kneeling on their final possession to bring their rushing total for the half into negative territory.
There's no denying that the defense, for all its shortcomings in the passing game, stepped up in stopping the run. And look no further than the young defensive line for the reason. Heyward, Tuitt and McLendon are clearly our line of the future, and all of them took significant steps forward this season. Heyward was a fringe Pro Bowl candidate this year, while McLendon is developing into just the kind of space eater so many of us didn't think he could be. Meanwhile, Tuitt's development almost mirrors that of Bryant on the other side of the ball: redshirted at the beginning of the year, his steady game-to-game improvement paired with his impressive athleticism saw him become an unquestioned starter during his rookie year. Behind them, young Dan McCullers is starting to see significant snaps as well, and making them count. If football is still won in the trenches, the Steelers should have plenty of optimism that this team can be even better on the inside in 2015.
A Defensive Playmaker
I'll be the first to admit that Ryan Shazier's rookie season wasn't what I hoped it would be. It was easy to get excited about him during training camp and pre-season, when he continuously made the kind of "splash plays" this defense had been missing over the last couple of years. Injuries and adjustments to the speed and complexity of the NFL slowed him down in 2014. But every now and then, you could see the potential of the young linebacker.
Against the Ravens, watch him during the Justin Forsett fumble in the fourth quarter. He recognizes the run immediately, shooting from his position behind the defensive line into the backfield and driving the tight end 5 yards backwards and into Forsett before the running back can even think about making a cut. That kind of explosion and speed is what had the Steelers run to the podium in May. That kind of athleticism has me excited and almost certain that, despite the solid play of Vince Williams and Sean Spence this year, Shazier will lock down a starting position in 2015 and become a consistent playmaker.
A New Batch?
When Ben Roethlisberger appeared to injure his head and had to be taken out for evaluation during a desperate fourth quarter comeback attempt, most of us were sure the game was over. In came Bruce Gradkowski for a 3rd and 21, and immediately made two plays that had the Steelers sitting with a 1st and 10 on the Baltimore 14 yard line. Improbably, there was hope! Of course, Roethisberger re-entered and promptly threw the game-ending pick.
But even that disappointment couldn't take away the positives Gradkowski brought during those two plays, playing with poise and an understanding with his receivers that's not often seen from a backup QB having to enter the game on short notice. File this one under way too small of a sample size, but his play had me flash back to Charlie Batch, another hometown backup QB for the Steelers who made a living stepping in and performing solidly when when needed. Oddly enough, the fact that we're now left wondering if Ben came back too early makes me feel much better about the backup QB situation in 2015 than I did this year.
In the end, the Steelers came up short and have an entire offseason to ponder the mistakes that allowed their heated rival to walk into Heinz Field and come out with an impressive win. But for this fan at least, the arrow is pointing up, and bigger things just may be on the horizon for 2015. Is it August yet?