This was not what I had expected.
The Pittsburgh Steelers beat up and wore down the New York Jets Sunday 31-13. It was not perfect (right, Danny Smith? Jordan Berry on the fake punt?), it was sloppy (just go back and look at any of the three drops by Sammie Coates, the Schrodinger’s cat of Week 5 since he was both simultaneously a winner and a loser), and it was frustrating. But the Steelers did not just come out a winner, but they are now tied for the best record in the AFC at 4-1 and lead the conference in point differential with +46. Steeler Nation should be excited because this team is nowhere close to hitting its peak stride. If anything, Sammie Coates’s first five games of the 2016 season best epitomizes the Steelers’ narrative arc: explosive, exciting, frustrating, and sloppy…but still getting better each week.
And we have two entities to thank for the last two weeks: Mike Tomlin and the Philadelphia Eagles from Week 3.
While the return of Le’Veon Bell has made the offense look even more impressive, the Steelers should thank the Philadelphia Eagles for humbling them two weeks ago. The worst loss in 27 years brought the team together as one instead of dividing it through quarreling. Coach Mike Tomlin might have had the men more than prepared to play last weekend against the Chiefs, but I am more impressed with yesterday’s win than the blowout against Kansas City given the Steelers’ recent history when convincingly favored, especially at home.
Since 2012 (and prior to this game), the Steelers have gone a disappointing 6-4 in games at Heinz Field when facing a team with a losing record, with three of those wins coming against the hapless Cleveland Browns (the losses were in 2012 to the Chargers, 2014 to the Buccaneers and Saints, and last season’s infamous Josh Scobee game against the Ravens). I myself was expecting a huge letdown after the statement blowout against Kansas City last Sunday night. For most of the first half, it looked like the Steelers were going to be a struggle to squeak out a victory. Instead, the Steelers proved they can convincingly destroy a team lesser than them yesterday, thus looking like a glaring problem in the last several seasons has turned the corner for the better. That blowout loss to Philadelphia might be fresh on most of our collective minds, but it looks like the team has gotten over it and, more importantly, learned from it.
The defense that looked helpless and embarrassed in Philadelphia has now given up just 27 total points in the last two games, which is even more impressive given that the Chiefs and Jets were ranked 9th and 11th respectively in scoring offense last season. Yes, the defense is not going to remind anyone of the legendary 2008 squad, but this defense is scrappy and showed in the last two weeks they will not back down. Same could be said for backup tackle Chris Hubbard, who filled in more than admirably for Marcus Gilbert, one of nine men listed as out on Friday’s injury report. This team has definitely taken Tomlin’s personality and the fight in this team has shown no signs of slowing down.
Injuries are the only thing that will stop down the Steelers in 2016. Now as we all hold our collective breath on Cam Heyward’s status, the Steelers will look to make their longest road trip to Miami this weekend. The Dolphins are another team struggling with mediocre-to-bad quarterback play, and no real sense of identity as new head coach Adam Gase tries to put his stamp on the team. The 4-1 Steelers must continue their positive momentum regardless of their health situation by going to Miami and taking care of the Dolphins. The Steelers cannot afford to look toward the marquee matchup two weeks from now when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots travel to Heinz Field in what will be a possible preview of the AFC championship game, while preparing for Miami.
There is no doubting Coach Tomlin’s ability to get the men prepared for marquee matchups. However, how the team looks next Sunday in Miami will show if everything the Steelers have built in the last two games are for real, or just a mirage.
I would bet on the Steelers being the real deal and now truly elite among the NFL’s best teams in 2016.