By Michael K. Reynolds
With a season on the brink, the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful lacking faith and a storm of boos descending upon the home team, Coach Mike Tomlin’s squad pulled a giant sized rabbit out of their hat with a 30-23 victory over the Houston Texans.
Is this just another terrible tease in a season of inconsistency or is this the game that will change everything? That will be best answered with the upcoming battle against the Indianapolis Colts but in the meantime here are your Rapid Fire Conclusions:
First…An Unfortunate Dose of Reality
Before we shift to mad gloating and doing our pre-rehearsed shaky-baky dance in the end zone it’s important to realize this team was one Michael Palmer onside kick recovery away from suffering another demoralizing loss. This would have completely sent the entire Pittsburgh populace off to every available bridge and probably would have put 2014 down in a watery grave. More than a few fans uttered an “Oh, oh” when they saw Darrius Heyward-Bey prancing out on special teams with the “good hands” team in the last waning moments of the game. Obviously that drew some comic relief for the Texans as well and if Palmer hadn’t bailed him out Heyward-Bey would need his world-class speed to run away from enraged fans. Yes…it was that close to disaster. But that’s how the Steelers roll this year, right?
The New Three Minute Offense
The Steelers scored a mind-numbing 24 points in a three-minute period at the end of the second quarter with three touchdowns coming in just over 80 seconds. For the glass half empty folks that means only 6 points were scored in the remaining 57 minutes of the game. But for the rest of us, it eased the concern about the Steelers in terms of creating turnovers and scoring in the Red Zone. Probably the three most important minutes of the season thus far.
New Identity? How About Young and Reckless
Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher called the team soft. Past team great Hines Ward said he doesn’t recognize the Steelers anymore. And former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis claimed the Steelers have gone from being a two chin strap team to a no chin strap team. Ouch! So who are the 2014 Steelers? Well…obviously…they are Mike Tomlin’s creation and he may just have taken the wrapper off of their new identity on Monday. A quarterback bootleg on the first play of the game. A wild reverse, receiver pass on first and goal. Deep balls to fast receivers. Rookie and second year players running loose on the field. Cowher’s teams were tough…but they could be boring and predictable on offense. As for longtime Steelers nemesis Ray Lewis? The ultimate smack down is that provided by the scoreboard. That’s how you truly beat up and demoralize teams. For better or worse, this is a whole new Steelers team in transition. (Yes…we have permission to say it now.) It’s a young squad retooled for speed, splash plays and adrenalin rushes. It’s time for the Steelers to worry less about who they used to be and focus on creating their own future. This is Tomlin’s year to prove he’s up to the task.
Kudos to the Much Maligned
It was good to see the Big Three step up this game with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell enjoying huge performances. But key to the victory was the under the radar play of a few Steelers who have been under attack by the fan base. Cam Thomas had his usual dose of getting tossed around at times but he showed up to this game with a brand, new motor. The team needed him to step up in the absence of Steve McLendon and Thomas responded by being relentless in his effort and hustle. Tackle Mike Adams had trouble on pass offense when he came in for injured Marcus Gilbert but he shined brightly on several one-on-one run blocking match-ups with superstar Texan J.J. Watt. His performance in run blocking might inspire some more three tackle formations by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Then there was Brice McCain, he of 2013’s lowest cornerback rating. McCain might just have resuscitated his career against his former team and this would be significantly positive news for the Steelers. Safety Mike Mitchell is slowly winning his way into fan’s hearts and his big play ability is starting to emerge. And cheers for the often booed Brad Wing who had two fantastic punts that pinned the Texans deep. After all, it’s not easy being a punter in Pittsburgh.
Kick Coverage Exceptional
Speaking of special teams it’s time to acknowledge kick coverage. Players like Antwon Blake, Terence Garvin and Robert Golden have been outstanding and even Ross Ventrone (AKA the Alex Kozora of football) has filled in well for injured Shamarko Thomas. It wasn’t too long ago when Steelers fans would cringe every time the team punted or kicked off but this has become an area of team strength now.
In For Repairs
It’s clear both receiver Markus Wheaton and cornerback Cortez Allen have been having their difficulties in 2014 but it’s imperative the team (and its fans) don’t give up on these talented players. Both are lacking confidence right now but that can be fixed with patience and some positive plays. The Steelers are doing the right thing by reducing their playing time as they go through their funk, but both are players who will add great value to the team after some needed time in the confidence repair shop.
McCullers Should Keep His Hat
Big nose tackle Daniel McCullers had only two variations of play during his rookie debut. Either he was pushing the center back to the quarterback, or he was getting cut by the center. It didn’t matter, because in both cases, the big man did his job. Whenever he was on the field, the Texans avoided going up the middle and his presence in the rotation seemed to inspire Thomas to play at a higher level. Even on 4th and 1 the Texans chose to go wide. Hopefully, the Steelers will consider giving McCullers some pass rush opportunities as his ability to collapse the pocket might just flush quarterbacks out into the awaiting arms of outside linebackers. Regardless, McCullers is a unique weapon the team needs to continue to develop and have available in their arsenal on game day.
Much of the attention went to rookie receiver Martavis Bryant for his breakout performance and for good reason. But overlooked is the fact good things happen when Darrius Heyward-Bey is on the field (onside kicks withstanding). The former top ten pick forces double teams with his freakish combination of speed and size, clearing out room for Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell to star at the short passing game. And he may be the best blocking receiver on the team. At 28, he’s still got years of productivity ahead and is just entering his prime. The Steelers need to commit to integrating him more fully into the offense as he may be part of the longer term plan.
The win over the Texans was huge. If the Steelers can stay competitive this victory might end up being a tiebreaker for the playoffs. The same can be said with their upcoming game against the Colts. A win against quarterback Andrew Luck and the stampeding Colts could shift the Steelers playoff hopes from pipe dream to probability at the halfway point of the season.