1-4 is clearly nothing to brag about, but it sure beats 0-5. Through the bye there was a laser like focus on the Jets game. It would have been hard to find anything relevant about what followed if they had failed in the Meadowlands last Sunday. So, after a largely satisfying win against the better of the two New York teams everyone took a breath and discovered that it was Ravens Week. As we all know Ravens games are entire seasons in and of themselves. Its not that the context is entirely unimportant. Division titles and sometimes more are commonly at stake. But this just adds texture to a contest whose intensity is in no way in need of enhancement by the circumstances. These two teams both respect and despise each other in equal measure, there is nothing contrived about it. Several Steelers shared their introductions to this rivalry that many feel is one of the best in professional sports.
Having said that, some of the luster of this match up has been lost because of the mediocre to poor performances that each of these proud franchises have mustered to the moment. It would have been much worse if the Steelers had gone into this game winless. There is the fact that the winner will remain relevant in a relatively weak division during a season that is still young, and the loser will likely find themselves in deep trouble. But we don't need any of that to feel good about winning or bad about losing. As with all good rivalries beating the Ravens really is its own reward.
Replay of the 76ers?
But before moving on it might profit us to linger a bit at where the team finds itself as it prepares to go deeper into the second quarter of the 2013 season. All through the bye it was cited that the last Steelers team that had gone 0-4 to begin the season was the 1968 squad under Bill Austin. Some morbid types pointed out that this was the last team pre-Golden Era (Before Noll/Cowher/Tomlin) when the franchise was in many ways truly awful. Might there have been some veiled implications that we might be returning to those days of yesteryear (There are a few who are very much into fear porn in Steelers Nation)? With the possibility of perfect failure gone, and based upon a fair reading of how they won this week, a lesser likelihood that the team is in a state of long term decline, what might be an appropriate team to compare this group to at this particular point in the season.
To be sure the comparison is nowhere near to being perfect. The 1976 Steelers were two time defending Super Bowl champions, in some ways at the very height of their powers. They also were, at this point, without their franchise quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, who was injured and would not return until the end of the season. However, the records of the two teams after five games are identical, 1-4. It also worth noting that two of those four early losses by the '76 team came at the hands of...the Browns, who also were responsible for taking out Bradshaw. What happened next? They ran the table by winning nine straight (at that time it was a fourteen game schedule) and then destroyed Baltimore (the Colts) in the Divisional playoff game before succumbing to the Oakland Raiders in the AFCCG. Now, to 21st Century sensibilities going on a nine game winning streak and getting to the conference championship game after being swept by the Browns must seem like so much science fiction or fantasy. How, you might ask, does something like that happen? Well, the important thing is that it did happen that way, meaning that anything this Steelers team does from this point forward could not possibly be any stranger than that.
In Hombre's Five Burning Questions one of the issues raised was whether or not the Steelers were being particularly hard hit by injuries. I agreed with those who took the position that they were no worse off than anyone in the NFL in this day and age. That doesn't mean that what is occurring is not dispiriting. Levi Brown was lost before the question of whether or not he was a worthwhile acquisition had barely escaped our lips. More painful was the loss of tight end David Johnson who was proving to be quite the asset and complement to Heath Miller after coming back from a severe knee injury of his own. Consequently, after having declared the opposite in this space last week, Matt Spaeth's health has, once again, become relevant. (And given all the criticism directed at the coaching staff and front office for their supposed lack of preparation for some of the personnel trials the team has faced this season, shouldn't they get some credit for what they've done with tight ends. It looked like overkill months ago. Turns out they have all been needed.) To compensate for these loses they have brought in Richard Gordon and rehired Isiah Greene, who should be feeling like a yo-yo about now. Markus Wheaton is still recovering from surgery on his finger. He will not play on Sunday.
There are some additional concerns. Jarvis Jones suffered an apparent concussion this week in practice and is listed as questionable, as well as tackle Marcus Gilbert who has a quad injury.
On the other side of the equation, Sean Spence put on pads and stepped onto the practice field for the first time in nearly fourteen months this past Wednesday. This drama can play in one of three ways; he proves that he is back enough that he can contribute to the team on the field in the 2013 season, he demonstrates that he's improving but progress is too slow for him to make it within the three week window provided and is essentially put back on the shelf until next season, or it discovered through the testing that the worst case scenarios are either true or close enough to being so that he will never come back or not in a time period in which the team can continue to invest in him. Let's hope that Spence becomes a holiday present for Steelers fans, stepping on the field of competition for the season.
The evolution of this young player has happened gradually enough that we may be missing how remarkable his story has become. He continues to demonstrate that he is smart and resourceful enough that if he is given an opportunity and a little bit of time that he continually can meet and often exceed expectations. He has gone from one whom many didn't believe deserved to be on the roster, to being perceived as a capable sub, to being thought of as the 'sixth man' of choice for the offensive line, to entertaining discussion as to whether he might be a good choice to start at arguably one of the most important positions on a professional football team. He looks better each and every week.
After enduring a lot of criticism questioning everything from his conditioning to his heart, Woodley has quietly returned to form and has been playing dominant football over the course of the first five games of the season.
Mike Who? Brown is not only helping to forget Wallace, he's in the discussion as part of the short list for the best receivers in the league. And he's far from being alone out there. Sanders, Miller and a broad supporting cast of receivers and backs are making the receiving game borderline unstoppable for opposing defenses.
Though not performing at level that both he and fans had hoped...yet, Bell has received encouraging endorsements from his head coach and offensive coordinator that would suggest that he is gaining momentum and with a reasonable amount of experience that may soon translate into some breakout performances eventually.
How do you view the Steelers?
The fear has been that the Steelers are a team in decline and that the best possible outcome would be to hope that they fall to the point that they get favorable position in the draft and begin the climb back up. The realization is building that this faction of the Nation may well be disappointed. While there is plenty to be critical of, such as SI.com piece that ranks the Steelers red zone offense as one of the worst in the NFL, and Bill Barnwell's that acknowledges difficulty in giving the team much of a vote of confidence going forward, there are, nonetheless, too many good things going on individually (high Pro Football Focus grades for Brown, Cortez Allen and Ryan Clark) and collectively (Paper Champions film room piece on team speed) to uncritically buy into the idea of total collapse by this team and the accompanying rationale that all would be best served to blow this group up and embrace a grass is greener fantasy that what best serves this team is scattered on college campuses across the country rather than those who reside at the South Side complex.
It is both ironic and yet understandable that perhaps the best expression of faith in the Steeler Way and confidence in the future came from a New York Jets fan.
He's another one of those players that a certain cadre of fans can't wait to see go out the door. However, outside linebacker Jason Worilds received a vote of confidence from his defensive coordinator this week as Dick LeBeau provided a different take from that of many of the fans who wonder why Worilds continues to share time with Jones and Woodley.
In what many will find a bizarre development, there is conversation about a sketchy offensive line this week and they're not talking about the Steelers.
This will be the human interest story of Ravens Week. These brothers will be on opposite sidelines. In an act of brotherly affection Bruce has encouraged the defensive line to abuse his baby brother.
The no fun team?
Head coach Mike Tomlin brought the hammer down on somersaults as a form of celebration this week. I certainly understand the safety concerns. Given the fragile relationship this team has with injuries it just seems to be tempting the fates for a Byron Leftwich type incident occurring. It also is consistent with keeping the heat on in terms of the team's focus as well as the necessity to remain serious about the little things.
Over a year and a half ago I cautioned that the head injury issue would not go away any time soon, and that it would periodically rear its ugly head and force the NFL and the its fans to face the league's mortality. I got around to watching the Frontline documentary on head injuries in the NFL. You may recall that the league pressured Espn to withdraw its support from this particular project, understandable as the piece places the NFL in a devastating light. I would recommend that you check this out as required viewing by any serious fan of professional football, but even more so because of the central role played by participants with Pittsburgh ties. Mike Webster, the late Hall of Fame center is the catalyst here, and other Steelers such as Terry Long figure prominently throughout the report. (The hit on Terry Bradshaw that put him out for most of the season in 1976 is played more than once here). In addition to the players, medical practitioners with Pittsburgh, and in some cases Steelers ties are key figures in bringing the issues surrounding brain injuries to light and were also targets of the league's wrath. The efforts by the league to cover up and discredit those who were bringing these things to light earned it accusations of behaving like 'Big Tobacco', and may provide fuel to the notion, fair or not, that some in New York have it in for Pittsburgh. I recommend you spend the time to view it. I predict you won't like what you see.
The situation at Grambling University is sad. But what's the relevance here? Their new head coach is Dennis "Dirt" Winston
Some good non football news as the Roethlisberger household is expecting their second child.