By Michael K. Reynolds
Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin has demonstrated he is an excellent coach with veteran players. He has a Super Bowl ring to prove the point.
But can he be counted on to draft, develop and retain young talent?
One of the most disappointing aspects about the loss to the New Orleans Saints was the Steelers completely squandered a bye period where they could have revamped the line-up by preparing and infusing rookie talent.
Instead they came out with a veteran laden starting defense featuring Cam Thomas at nose tackle and Will Allen rotating in at safety. Rather than finding a way to incorporate Dri Archer (or even Josh Harris) into the game plan they put Le’Veon Bell out there almost every play. That’s not developing Bell’s talent, it’s wearing it thin.
If the Steelers lose to the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend their season will effectively end and they will be 13 games into the year without getting answers to any of these critical questions:
- Can Ryan Shazier be a difference maker in the defense?
- Will Stephon Tuitt be the perfect complement to Cameron Heyward?
- Do they have a nose tackle of the future in Daniel McCullers?
- Will Shamarko Thomas be able to replace Troy Polamalu?
- Can Dri Archer be a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell?
- Will Martavis Bryant be able to consistently stretch the field?
- Is Markus Wheaton the answer as a number two receiver?
- Can Cortez Allen be an NFL cornerback?
- Will Jarvis Jones be able to fill James Harrison’s shoes?
- Who on the practice squad will be an impact player next year?
- Who will be left on the practice squad!
How could the Steelers possibly go into the free agency period or the 2015 NFL Draft without having these questions answered? Who do you draft in the first, second and third rounds? How would ever know?
Yes, some of these questions are unanswered because of injury but most of them are due to the fact Tomlin and his staff refuses to throw their younger players to the lions. And when they do put them in they are rarely integrated into the core game plan and get a hasty hook if they make a mistake.
Anyone who has played sports knows you can’t get on the field for three or four plays and be expected to perform at a high level. You need time to shake the nerves and get comfortable with the pace of the game. You have to be able to make a mistake without nervously looking over your shoulder.
Young players are going to spill their Spaghetti-O’s and get cake mushed on their face. The Steelers coaches shouldn’t be shocked if Bryant drops a ball, McCullers get tripped or Archer misses a hole in returning a kick. That’s just life with the training wheels off.
This is why the heavy snap counts for Thomas has been a key source of frustration for Steelers fans. Not so much that he’s playing poorly (there is that), but that he’s taking playing time from players with a much brighter future.
The San Diego Chargers had already invested plenty of time and resources in determining Thomas’ ceiling is lower mediocrity at best. Surely, the Steelers knew their mistake in acquiring him early in training camp when he was getting pushed around. Why wouldn’t they cut bait instead of obstinately pressing forward?
Why would the Steelers continue to allow Thomas to take critical playing time from Tuitt and McCullers? And if Josh Mauro ends up having a strong NFL career (having been snatched from the practice squad by the Arizona Cardinals) Steelers fans will always blame the organization’s inability to face reality with Thomas.
No one is claiming that McCullers is guaranteed to be the next Casey Hampton. But shouldn’t the team find out if the kid can play or not? If he fails, sit him or even cut him. But he isn’t developing and the Steelers aren’t learning anything about him by having him stand on the sidelines.
And again, it’s not like he would be taking snaps away from Joe Greene.
The same goes for Archer. Is the young man too slight to play in the NFL? Or can he be a dynamic change of pace to Bell? Put him in. Let’s find out. Shamarko Thomas had a sensational pre-season. How is it he can’t even get some rotations into the safety position? Yes…he was injured. But what about before that and even last year?
Not too many years ago the Steelers had the most talented trio of receivers in the league with the Young Money group of Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. Had the Steelers kept them together Ben Roethlisberger would have had one of the best receiving corps of all times at his disposal.
You can argue Wallace priced himself out of the Steelers market, but not locking down at least two of these three talented young players was an organizational failure.
They also lost cornerback Keenan Lewis who if he was on the Steelers today would arguably be the best player on the defense and would have certainly eliminated the need for the team to chase corners with high picks in the draft.
The reason they lost Lewis was they didn’t get him on the field early enough in his career. The same can be said about Jason Worilds. If the Steelers evaluated him earlier than halfway into last season they would have known he was a $5 million a year talent and not a $10 million franchise player that they will most likely lose next year.
It’s great Tomlin is so loyal to his veterans. But is his heavy loyalty to the older players coming at the cost of his loyalty to the future of the team and its fans?
Since when has the “Steelers Way” been about barely making it into the playoffs or focusing on a career win-loss record? When did it stop being about making bold moves in the effort to build another long-time champion?
Do the Steelers have enough talent on this team? Or do they need to radically rebuild? With the cautious approach Tomlin is taking yet again this year, they are running out of time to find out.