Coming into the 2015 NFL season, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers had every reason to have high expectations for the team's chances to perform at a high level after an 11-5 season that saw the Steelers lose in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The team struggled in the absence of its All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell and didn't have adequate depth to make up for his injury, which happened less than a week before the playoff game.
Despite the loss, the totality of the 2014 season gave fans every reason to be excited for the direction of the team. After back-to-back seasons at 8-8, the team's offense had emerged as one of the best in the league, with Antonio Brown leading the NFL in receiving yards, Martavis Bryant scoring eight touchdowns in ten games (nine in eleven when including the playoffs), Le'Veon Bell gaining over 2,000 all-purpose yards without fumbling the football even once, and the defense improving.
Despite all of the happiness, exciting draft picks and free-agency acquisitions, the team has had a list of problems that have kept the full, starting roster from being on the field.
Both Le'Veon Bell's two-game suspension and Martavis Bryant's four-game suspension limited the offense before the season ever began. Then the team lost Maurkice Pouncey to an injury that still may sideline him for the season. They also lost their backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, Shaun Suisham (their most consistent kicker since Norm Johnson), plus his initial replacement Garrett Hartley, and all this took place before the regular season began.
If that wasn't enough, the team lost its starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum for the season last week, and it was already missing Ben Roethlisberger for what will most likely be at least four-and-a-half games this season after the Steelers play the Kansas City Chiefs. Besides losing Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Vick's injury forced Landry Jones to play quarterback against the Arizona Cardinals. The defense also has only seen their super-athletic linebacker, Ryan Shazier, for less than two games, and they now must work without Stephon Tuitt for a week.
Taking all that into consideration, as well as the fact that the Steelers' third replacement kicker, Josh Scobee, missed so many kicks that he had to be cut and replaced by a kicker who had never kicked in the NFL during the regular season, would you have guessed that the team would be 4-2 going into Week 7? And not just 4-2, but a really solid- looking 4-2 with gut-check wins and upsets without Ben Roethlisberger on the field for three games.
In recent years, the Steelers have struggled with similar injury problems, including the losses of Ryan Shazier, Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger, each of which has missed more games than they have played this season. In the past, those injuries were part of the reason why the team struggled to maintain a .500 season.
So how are the Steelers surviving with all that they've had to endure?
Thank the management.
That includes not only Kevin Colbert, but Mike Tomlin, the Rooneys and the coaching staff. For the two years when the Steelers went 8-8, fans called for implosion of the team, dumping of various members of the coaching staff and declared the team to be on its way to having to completely rebuild. Despite the struggles, the team still has yet to post a losing season and has never gone into fire-sale mode nor have they resorted to dumping off their stud players that kept the team together through the tough years.
Kevin Colbert has had his misses, just like any other general manager in sports, but he also has had some huge hits. His selection of players led to the foundation of the mid-to-late-2000s Steelers that won two Super Bowls and went to three. Many thought the game had passed him by because his 2008 and 2009 drafts yielded no solid options for the Steelers in the long-term. But if anything, his commitment to solidify specific units for the Steelers has proven that Colbert knows what he's doing.
He put together an offensive line to replace a group considered the worst offensive line ever to win a Super Bowl in 2009, and now it's one of the better units in the NFL, even without undisputed leader Maurkice Pouncey. The defensive front now has one of the NFL's best defensive ends in Cameron Heyward and a rising star in Stephon Tuitt. The linebackers have become a featured part of the team again with Lawrence Timmons as captain and James Harrison helping to set the tone for expectations. Younger players such as Vince Williams and Sean Spence have been solid fill-ins for the extremely athletic Ryan Shazier and the up-and-coming Bud Dupree, in addition to other talents in Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats.
The team's defense was supposed to be its Achilles heel, but through six games it has been the anchor keeping the team in every game during Ben Roethlisberger's absence.
The personnel are there, but it also takes solid coaching to make them become cohesive. Mike Munchak has been a great addition to the team who has helped the offensive line gel into a solid run-blocking group. The franchise did everything it could to hold onto the legendary Dick LeBeau, while keeping Keith Butler in the fold when he was looking at multiple coordinator opportunities from other teams. Butler opted to remain in Pittsburgh for the chance to establish his own legend in Pittsburgh's defensive lore.
Jerry Olsavsky has the middle linebackers playing at a high level. Joey Porter has the outside linebackers bringing heat when the team needs it. Carnell Lake has a group of low picks and bargain-basement defensive backs playing solid football. All of those assistant coaches are former Steelers who once were key playmakers for the franchise and now are coaching the new generation.
From players to coaches, this team has been managed well to get to its current position where the team appears to have emerged from the hard years to be back in consideration among the top teams in the NFL.
Solid organizations can manage to field a competitive team when they get some early draft-picks and build a new nucleus with superstar talents. In most cases, though, teams must have pitfalls during these transitional phases that put them at the bottom of the league before getting those high draft-picks. But solid organizations manage to put together multiple, competitive units over a span of a few decades and without suffering too many losing seasons. Great organizations, however, consistently field playoff-caliber teams that change personnel over mulitple decades without tanking.
Since 1978, the Steelers worst record ever recorded in a season was 5-11, but that's better than any other organization's worst record.
That includes the tough years for Chuck Noll in the 1980's and Bill Cowher's losing seasons in the late 1990's. Pittsburgh's current head coach, Mike Tomlin, has yet to see a losing season, posting two 8-8 records, and a 9-7 record in 2009 during the three lone seasons when the team hasn't made the playoffs in Tomlin's tenure. Some may consider an 8-8 season inexcusable for a head coach no matter the circumstances, but the truth is that, in the NFL, you cannot always avoid down seasons.
Similarly, the Steelers' divisional rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, are starting to experience a similar down-time in the league. They had previously managed to hold onto stalwart defensive talent for many years in Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Offensive talents during that period included Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice and Torrey Smith. Of those talents helping the Ravens to win a Super Bowl in 2012, only Suggs remains in 2015, and he's on injured reserve for the season. The Ravens are 1-5 and probably are on their way to 1-6 preparing to face a tough Arizona Cardinals team. They'll have to pull off a comeback similar to that of the 2013 Steelers, who went 6-2 in the second half of 2013. Otherwise, John Harbaugh will record his first losing season as a head coach. That will be an interesting narrative to watch unfold and see how Baltimore weathers its own storms.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh seems to come out of its tough times looking like one of the teams to beat in the NFL, and with a roster filled with young players to boot. The arrow is pointing up again for this team and they didn't have to give up their franchise quarterback, nor any of their major acquisitions who have now become supreme talents in the league.
Paraphrasing former Steelers cornerback, Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh doesn't rebuild, they reload. Pittsburgh has indeed done that, after keeping together an older nucleus that had been in existence since 2004. The team had to retool after its back-to-back 12-4 seasons in 2010 and 2011. It took just two years for that transition to happen and the Steelers established a newer, younger group with leaders and talent possessing the potential to add to the already packed Pittsburgh trophy case.