Every season has a character all its own. Sometimes, like in 2010, it starts fast (4-1) even though the expectations were for something a lot less. Sometimes, like in 2013, it starts, well, slow (1-4). The competitive trend of 2014 has been that of the yo-yo, up one week, down the next (3-2). We'll soon see if the pattern holds and this turns out to be another down week. But there's another steadier trend that is defining the early weeks of this season in another way. 2014 is well on its way to being the year of B & M (Bitchin' and Moanin'). A couple of weeks ago, the question was asked, with tongue firmly set in cheek, whether the 2014 Steelers were the worst 1-1 team ever. Let's now upgrade that and ask whether this is the worst 3-2 team ever. This week presented something of a creative challenge in that the team won their game against Jacksonville; an inconvenient truth.
As just mentioned, if you happened to be out of pocket over the past weekend, you could forgiven if you were confused about what was the outcome of Steelers/Jags. But let's be clear. You didn't have to be a crank to be a bit perturbed by what transpired in Florida Sunday afternoon. For me, the thing that won the award for 'tactics that cause you to yell at the television' was the Steelers' red-zone offense. Apparently, the thought was 'We won't run our back who's averaging 5+ yards per carry (Le'Veon Bell) or our other back who's averaging more than 6 yards per carry (LeGarrette Blount) because that's what they'll be expecting. Let's trick 'em!' A close second is when offensive coordinator Todd Haley was channeling his inner Arians by going with the empty backfield set on first downs. 'Let's not even pretend we're going to run the ball with our two backs that nobody can stop. We're passing, stop us if you can.' I could go on, but Matt Steel presents an eloquent rant of which I'm in basic agreement. Fortunately, Pittsburgh survived this sort of slick thinking and dispatched the Jags, which is the only thing that counted. Personally, I would prefer a more-boring approach.
Highlights from the Steelers' Week 1 win over the Cleveland Browns
The defense grows
In addition to winning the game (which I understand is the object of the exercise), there was something new and promising transpiring as well. For the first time this season, the defense played well enough for four quarters to carry the team. For the past three games, the rush defense has been the best in the league. But it was the much-maligned defensive secondary and particularly its top-three corners, William Gay, Cortez Allen and Brice McCain, who were most impressive. Allen and McCain each produced that most rare of phenomena, a turnover. McCain's was the most significant because of its timing (coming after a Steelers turnover in the red zone as they clung to a one-point lead), and it validated, for one week at least, the acquisition of the lightly regarded corner, previously of the Texans.
It's not just newcomers that are contributing to the promise of the 2014 defense. As Homer J is fond of saying, they're getting the band back together again and some old familiar veteran names are making their presence felt. Troy Polamalu, along with David DeCastro, received the top PFF scores. James Harrison is getting more playing time than expected this early into his comeback and continuing the process of rounding himself back into football shape. Brett Keisel is a little bit further along in this process and contributed a key blocked pass that helped put the game away.
The (youth) cavalry to arrive?
There's more. Ryan Shazier has returned to practice on a limited basis. He won't play in Cleveland, but his return to the field may not be too far off. But the bigger rookie story this week involves reports that second-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt may be ready to take on a larger role moving forward. Perhaps even earning a spot in the starting lineup. This is music to the ears of those who have been disenchanted so far with the performance of Cam Thomas. At minimum, it appears that the defense is both improving and developing depth. But that will be tested severely by the potent Browns running attack and hurry-up offense that shredded this group during the second half of opening day. We should know where this unit stands by close of business Sunday.
The wide receivers
Sticking with the youth cavalry theme for a bit longer, there's also talk that Martavis Bryant may be ready to step up and contribute as well. The conversation is about what he may be able to do to improve the performance in the red zone. I'm sure he can help but just a friendly reminder that, before we go all-in with the rookie, let's remember that Bell and Blount did quite well for themselves against Cleveland last time they met. Just saying.
Lance Moore managed to get his first significant playing time this past week, but also got into a tiff with Mike Tomlin in the process. This may reflect the frustration of having to continue to stand in line behind Justin Brown. J. Brown hasn't been terrible but, with Moore now healthy, Bryant apparently getting up to speed, the offense struggling a bit and the degree of difficulty in opponents going up, reshuffling the deck at wide receiver might be advisable at this point.
There are no questions performance-wise with Antonio Brown, but for the second week running he was at the center of not one, but two controversies. That these have been blown out of proportion says more about the increasingly prickly condition of our entitled fan base (Here's Ryan Clark's take on this) and the bloodlust of some to build a case against team leadership, be it Tomlin, Haley, Noll (Oh yeah, he's deceased, but what the hell), than it says about what actually transpired in Jacksonville. Rebecca Rollett, in concurring with Ron Cook, tries to bring some rational analysis to the matter of whether the record-prolonging pass to Brown constituted some major violation of end-of-game protocol. While Neal Coolong explains that the jersey swap involved a league business policy, not Tomlin playing Scrooge.
And speaking of records, Heath Miller is also milking a streak. He's the focal point of much of this week's Film Room by Paper Champions. Even given Jack Finn's Jekyll-and-Hyde analogy on Haley, I honestly believe this offense has too many potentialities to stay down for long, no matter how much they shoot themselves in the foot. In speaking of the steady work of A. Brown and Miller, the emergence of Wheaton, the rise of Moore and Bryant, the still-untapped potential of Archer and the running of Bell and Blount, there still hasn't been much discussion of Bell and Blount as pass receivers, which was also on display in a limited manner on Sunday. We've seen them string a portion of this together in limited but, nonetheless, devastating effect at times this season. Watch out when the offense manages to put four quarters together.
This rivalry has, honestly, not amounted to much for a generation. But there are signs this might change beginning this season. This may be a little disorienting to younger fans but, if true, this could quickly match and, at times, even eclipse the intensity of Steelers/Ravens. The cultural and historical infrastructure is already in place and, frankly, it could be a real boost to the league. The bad news, of course, is that the days of two slam-dunk divisional wins may be over, and there's the additional concern that, unlike Steelers/Ravens, one team tends to dominate the other for long stretches. Could we be witnessing a flip in fortunes?
Prepping for the Browns
Head Coach Mike Tomlin laid out the upcoming challenges in Cleveland during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. It was the turn of the coordinators on Thursday as Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau held court.
Defending Tomlin and the challenge of being Pittsburgh
Ramon Foster pushed back on the notion that the term 'player's coach' when referenced to Tomlin meant that he was soft on his players. Foster laid out what probably annoys some fans, in that Tomlin disciplines and calls players out in private, but doesn't try to score cheap points by throwing the person under the bus in public. (I'm coming to learn that for some the theatrics of coaching is coaching. I guess they don't know any better.) Foster also pointed out that the reason that the team might not perform as well as some might expect against some opponents is that teams typically put forth their best efforts against Pittsburgh. In a separate interview, Sean Spence reminds us everyone playing in this league is on scholarship. There really aren't any pushovers. Craig Wolfley also offered a different set of game-day observations that don't necessarily match how others interpret what transpires.
Homer J sent me this link that gives a Cleveland-eye view of the Steelers' fan base. Really funny.
There's no real expectation that Shazier will be available this week, meaning that the only significant question mark would be the status of Shamarko Thomas, who suffered a hamstring injury in Jacksonville (and we just got word that both are out for Cleveland). The most impactful injury would be Joe Haden of the Browns, who's listed as questionable as I write this. Even when healthy, he struggles with A. Brown. If absent, that assignment would seem to fall to rookie Justin Gilbert who had his own struggles with Markus Wheaton when the teams met on opening day.
It's unknown when Taylor will return to action, but he's sticking close to the team, attending practices and having accompanied the team to Florida.
The fall league meeting held this past week was more meaningful than in the past. Those who thought Goodell was on his way out the door, just because many of you are displeased with him and were calling for his dismissal, may be disappointed.
Peering behind the curtain
With the preceding in mind, Agent Jack Bechta gives his perspective on what he has learned about the inner workings of the league.
Life after the NFL
And, thanks to Bill Steinbach for alerting me to this, we finish with a look at one player making the adjustment after the NFL.
In bad taste