Sure, it’s not an original line; but it’s just as true for Steelers Nation in 2017 as it was for Packer Land in 2014. Take a deep breath. All will be well. Just wait it out. The cliches are all true: every season is a novel full of twists, ups and downs, and surprise endings. Don’t try to rate it until you finish the final page. We’re in a marathon and not a dash, so don’t worry about stumbles early on — etc.
We’re all on the outside looking in, but there are a few basic things we can know. Let’s look at those.
The Pittsburgh Steelers always start slow.
I’m a big and unabashed fan of Mike Tomlin because I think he “gets” the most important things about being an NFL Head Coach: how to develop talent, how to unite and motivate the men on the field, and how to mesh the on-the-field parts with the front office concerns. I admit (and he would admit) that there are legitimate criticisms. For example, I’m not convinced that he’s a great genius or anything when it comes to the X’s and O’s. I just argue that he doesn’t need to be because “really good” is enough, and he’s certainly at that level. I would also agree that Tomlin’s teams always seem to start slow and then pick up steam as the season rolls along. End-of-season momentum is and always has been a great Tomlin asset, balanced by oft-fumbling starts and occasional bad losses to weaker units.
And you know what? This season conforms pretty well to that pattern so far. The Steelers have played hard, and they’re united in their focus on fundamentals. They’ve also been gashed due to lapses in those fundamentals, and they’re getting better.
The defense has played better than expected, and they’ll improve
Even against the run. Their run-defense problems have come from big plays. Remove those outliers and the statistics look pretty good, even in the Chicago and Jacksonville games. There’s even a word for this in stat-geek land that I can’t remember (if you are fluent in “stat speak” please share it in the comments). In any case, here is what I’m getting at. Some teams give up five yards per carry almost every time, with relatively few that are bigger or smaller. Opponents can pretty much rely on running plays to move the chains unless the defense drops extra men into the box. That’s really bad because it opens said defense up to the play-action pass game.
Pittsburgh is the sort of team (right now) that gives up two yards per carry on ten straight plays and then 30 yards on one play. The “average” might be the same, but the underlying story is very different. Pittsburgh’s play speaks of a solid unit that simply needs to close a few holes.
So... Why have the Steelers been gashed on runs in the first five games of 2017? There are two obvious and well acknowledged reasons.
The first problem has been defenders missing their run fits (i.e., two or more men covering a single hole and thus leaving a different hole wide open). “Failure to set the edge” is just one example. It has happened on the inside too. This is the biggest issue by far, but you know what? We expected this! Missing your run fits is the classic example of a front-7 mental error you’d expect from young players — of which the Steelers have many.
Relax. They know the problem. They’ve admitted the problem in public. They’re working on the problem. Stephon Tuitt was obsessing about it in an interview I heard earlier this week. History proves it’ll get better as the season wears on. It always does.
The second issue has been missed tackles. Please note this ties in with the missed run fits to a large extent. A defender who’s diving to fill a big hole or racing to make up for one in open space, is a lot more likely to whiff on the ball carrier than one who’s playing within the role he’s been assigned. But subject to that proviso, I won’t argue the point. Tackles have been missed that could and should have been made. Why? Well, poor tackling is a problem in the start of every year and for pretty much every team. Old timers point to the lack of padded practices and the changes in tackling discipline for youth football. Other pundits point to coaches who are handicapped by younger squads, or who always seem to get their teams off to slow starts.
Do I really need to say it? Younger squads? Slow starts? Sound like anyone we know?
What else do we know? The problems will be gone by the end of the year. They always are. I LOVE where this defense is headed and what they’ve shown.
BTSC predicted some early-season disappointments for the offense
A month ago, I wrote an article warning that the Steelers offense was likely to disappoint us more than the defense. It warned that our expectations were stratospheric and would be all but impossible to meet. We wrote that timing is a huge issue for modern offenses, and that both Bell and Bryant were likely to suffer because of their time missed. We all agreed that Ben can be streaky, especially on the road, and that the team’s reliance on the long ball could create a major problem if the streakiness and timing problems coincided in the form of turnovers. I expressed the common worry that other teams would devise game plans specifically aimed at Pittsburgh because the Steelers were bound to be seen as a personal measuring stick. And I particularly lamented that the one real gap in our offense, the relative lack of a true power running game, happens to be the one true cure-all for the above mentioned stumbling blocks.
Go ahead and slap me for saying, “I told you so.” [Whap! Hey! That wasn’t the point I was trying to make.]
The point is that all the problems we’ve seen were not only predictable, they were actually predicted! The team’s response to those problems is just as predictable because we see it every year. Mike Tomlin may not be a genius with the X’s and O’s, and he may have never figured out how to get off to a rapid start, but he and his staff are second to none when it comes to motivation, discipline, and constant improvement on the fundamentals. The 2017 Steelers team will start to make fewer and fewer errors, their timing will slowly improve, and they’ll embrace the adversity as a spur to keep getting better. They’ll demonstrate class. They always do. There’s no need to panic.
Let’s be real. Ben’s skills will eventually decline but he hasn’t lost it yet.
Those interceptions in the game against Jacksonville were the result of facing a seriously good, ball-hawking defense whose Corners played out of their minds. The game was close until the freak accidents hit, and then the opposition was good enough to take advantage when our offense was forced to press. Pittsburgh got “Steelered”. It was classic football, and I would have enjoyed it if we weren’t on the receiving end. Hats off to the Jags; they won more than Pittsburgh lost.
Quarterbacks do lose it eventually, of course. Everyone does. But it usually happens to the great ones, like Ben, when injuries pile up, they start to miss too many games, and their fastball loses its edge. Take your pick of the examples. Peyton Manning is just the most recent. I haven’t seen any of that with Ben.
Yes, he had a really bad game against a really good defense. The stats make it look worse than it really was, but there’s no denying it was not his best work even during the good parts. And yes, he’s been out of sync with Bell and Bryant. But who is likelier to be the cause of that? The QB who made them, and others, look great throughout his career? Or the guys who spent a year on the sideline and missed the entirety of training camp and the preseason? Add in Eli Rogers’ apparent need for some maturity lessons [sigh], JuJu Smith-Schuster’s extraordinary youth (even for a rookie), the lack of anyone stepping up at Tight End, and... voila! You have the Steelers’ 2017 offensive woes in a nutshell.
All of these are problems that time and work will solve. The only “hard” limit may be at Tight End and, once again, we all knew that was probably in the cards from Day 1.
Give Marcus Gilbert his due.
Talk about unappreciated! Right Tackle isn’t the sexiest position on the field, but it’s an important one and Gilbert might be the best in all of football. His backups are fine players in their own right but Gilbert is special. His absence lowers all boats.
Yes, injuries are part of the game. No, they’re not an excuse for failure. But it’s both unfair and misleading to ignore the injury factor when you try to explain things. The remedy for a sputtering offense is the same as it’s always been: Ground and Pound. That’s much harder to do when Marcus Gilbert isn’t there to help.
Is it really that simple?
Yes, I truly believe it is. The offense hasn’t clicked the way we wanted, but that’s because our expectations were too high and they’ve had lots of timing problems to address in multiple areas. Timing problems get fixed with practice and work.
The defense has actually played better than expected, but they’ve been dragged down by occasional big plays resulting from youthful, face-smack mental mistakes and undisciplined tackling. Youth and irregular fundamentals: the very definition of things that get fixed with practice and work.
Sounds like the solution lies in [you guessed it!] focus, practice, discipline and work. There’s no coach in the NFL who does better at those tasks than Mike Tomlin, and his staff members have all embraced it. The problems we see are the exact problems this team and its staff are best equipped to solve.
They do it every year, so R-E-L-A-X. It’ll come, and it’ll be lots of fun to watch when it does. We may yet curse these early losses when the Steelers end up with away games in the playoffs, but I have zero doubt that the playoffs are going to happen. Nor do I doubt that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the team that no one wants to face in January football.