Based on many of the game thread comments near the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 35-30 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, one might think that the organization's only option is to dismiss all of the coaches and bench or release at least half of the current roster. While every die hard Steelers fan feels a sense of hopelessness after the team's fourth consecutive defeat, there is also some reason for optimism.
Most importantly, all of the teams remaining on the Steelers' 2016 schedule are eminently beatable, even by a team that has underperformed for a majority of the current season. If the Black and Gold succeeds in addressing some key issues, it's not inconceivable that they could post a record of 7-0 or 6-1 in their remaining games. If you're wondering what I've been drinking at this point, let's just say that not everything happening at Heinz Field on Sunday was gloom and doom. Despite the obvious issues, the Steelers gave the 8-1 Cowboys a gritty fight before collapsing late in the fourth quarter. And based on their record, we have to consider the Cowboys as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The Steelers offense showed definite signs of awakening from its periodic slumber during the first half of the season. Le'Veon Bell continues to be one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the entire NFL. A tight end position that many thought would be a trouble spot this season seems to be in excellent hands. We've only begun to see the contributions that Ladarius Green can make to this offense. Ben Roethlisberger appears to have returned to top form after suffering some ill effects of his recent knee surgery. Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton each are staging serious bids to become the kinds of players who can complement and take some pressure off of Antonio Brown.
That being stated, you're not going to win too many games when your defense surrenders 35 points, especially when your offense doesn't have a single turnover. Quite obviously, the crux of the Steelers' problem is their defense or lack thereof. This starts with losing battles at the line of scrimmage. Today's NFL is chock full of talented running backs but, unlike the great Steelers teams of yesteryear, the current defense hasn't been able to stop the run or put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Cameron Heyward is a world-class defensive lineman, but it's impossible for him alone to compensate for his underachieving teammates. In its present form, just about any Steelers opponent with a decent running game can carve up this unit and possess the ball on long, clock-chewing drives.
Even at linebacker, where the organization invested a large portion of its salary budget in recent years, the team isn't getting nearly the level of performance expected. While part of the explanation probably involves sub-par play on the defensive line, we're continually seeing Steelers LBs caught up in the wash while speedy backs run untouched through gaping holes in the defense. For example, on the final TD run by Ezekiel Elliott that sealed the Steelers' doom on Sunday, Ryan Shazier was trapped inside and unable to make what should have been a stop for only a short gain. This despite the fact that it appeared Shazier was positioned right at the edge of Elliott's running lane. This defense needs linemen and linebackers who can shed blocks and close off running lanes, but so far we haven't seen that.
As for the blame that many assign to the Steelers DBs, it's important to keep in mind that we've got a couple of rookies playing back there out of necessity rather than choice. Artie Burns and Sean Davis are going to develop further with each game and it's quite possible we might be talking about a much improved secondary by the end of this season. This is a far cry from the utter train wreck we've had in the secondary in previous years.
What nobody in Steelers Nation wants to hear is the fact that, as a team, the Steelers remain in a transitional phase which most of us assumed would be completed by now. Offensively, the team still isn't clicking at the high-power level many expected when the season began. But at least that needle is pointing upwards. With the additions of Green, Rogers and Hamilton, and provided that Ben stays healthy, the Steelers' offense should be formidable for the remainder of the season. But Ben still needs to develop a greater comfort level and better synch with these receivers who haven't played regularly until recently.
Defensively, the team is looking for at least a couple more reliable stoppers akin to former players such as James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Ryan Clark and Casey Hampton. The Steelers' current defense might be blessed with great speed and athleticism, but it seems sorely lacking in the kind of toughness and physicality distinguishing Pittsburgh in former years. At this stage, we seem to be poised on the verge of discovering whether our recent drafts of defensive players have truly delivered the results expected by the organization. At the same time, it's still premature to assume that this endeavor has failed.
Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier each have shown flashes of brilliance, but we might need to wait until Bud Dupree gets healthy and assumes a starting role before judging whether our recent drafts have done the trick. But the fact that James Harrison continues to play a key role on this defense speaks to the failure of our younger linebackers, at least so far, to step up and stake their claims to NFL greatness.
Thus, while there's still hope that the Steelers can make a second half run to the playoffs in the weak AFC North, the dark side holds out the real possibility that, at some point in the near future, the team's defensive drafts of recent years might be exposed as costly busts. If we don't start to see significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball fairly soon, this certainly would warrant condemnation of the Steelers' competency in drafting the right players or in developing young players. This is the gloomy possibility that nobody in Steelers Nation wants to have to face. So let's hope that what we're seeing now is merely a temporary detour on the road to permanent improvement.