By Michael K. Reynolds
The Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 season obituary was mostly written by the fourth quarter during their pivotal game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Don’t lie. You were cursing under your breath. And probably well above it.
An inaccurate Ben Roethlisberger, an offense settling on field goals and a defense granting Bengals receiver A.J. Green an all access pass.
But then, rising out of the Ohio ashes was perhaps the most significant play in this year’s heart wrenching soap opera: A 94-yard, perfectly called, wonderfully blocked, splendidly thrown bomb to rookie receiver Martavis Bryant. This lead to a dramatic 42-21 finish.
Then glorious dominoes fell in place around the league with huge losses suffered by the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs giving the Steelers significantly improved positions in not only the division title race but in Wild Card contention.
And so, with a renewed hope and optimism, here are your Rapid Fire Conclusions:
Hats Off, Deep Bow
Any discussion of this game would be unjust to the players, coaches and the organization if it didn’t begin with a standing ovation and some Terrible Twirls. There is no belittling the significance of this victory. The team responded with tremendous character as the Bengals were desperate to get this win and gave the Steelers all they had. Unquestionably this is a big time win for Coach Mike Tomlin and his transitioning team.
But Whoa Nellie!
Following the win, some Steelers talk show hosts were actually mocking fans for ever doubting the organization. Uh…sorry boys, but you’ve been smoking the company crack a little too long. Being a Steelers fan this season is like being a dog wearing one of those electronic collars. You keep wanting to wag your tail but you’ve got an odd feeling that’s what triggers the jolt. Don’t judge us too harshly if you overhear us humming a few bars of The Who classic, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Enthusiasm will be tempered at least until the team makes it home safely from Atlanta.
A Broken Record Going Platinum
Antonio Brown is approaching a record thirty straight games with at least five catches and fifty yards gained. Not too long ago this pursuit was considered the poster child of nonsense NFL achievements, even by many Steelers fans. But with each week, this feat gets increasingly remarkable. That’s because Brown is no longer anonymous. With many considering him among the league’s best he now has to keep the streak going while being the main focus of extensive opponent film review and taking on double and triple teams. If the offense is inconsistent, you can’t blame Brown. He’s been as steadily spectacular and as virtually unstoppable as any player in the league.
Hand Over Those Keys, Please
The Steelers made significant progress in turning over the team car to the younger players and with great results. Martavis Bryant ran away from the competition and also was trusted with some clutch possession plays. Markus Wheaton flashed and continues his rise. Stephon Tuitt showed he can do it and that less Cam Thomas is more. But there were still some troubling indications that coaches are still suffering from Marcel Proust syndrome, otherwise known as Remembrances of Things Past. Having Ike Taylor shadow A.J. Green “just like the old days” was one of the worst coaching decisions of the year. The second worst was not giving him continual safety help after last week’s debacle where he got scorched beyond recognition. Then again, witnessing Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell trying to tag team A.J. Green was like watching two guys jump out a plane only to discover their shared parachute wouldn’t open. Hopefully, the Steelers will continue to give more playing time to younger players whose future has arrows pointing up. After all, friends shouldn’t let old friends drive.
The Secondary Isn’t That Bad…Really
Everyone is quick to assert how terrible the Steelers secondary is and if you’re pointing to disappointing free agents and fading veterans there certainly is truth in this statement. But last week’s setback against the New Orleans Saints aside, William Gay is a solid number two cornerback who seemingly continues to get better every week. His interception called back by penalty was sensational and he was just a half-step away from getting his third Pick Six this season. Antwon Blake continues to show he should get starting consideration (perhaps being subbed out by Taylor when opponents are on the goal line and it’s jump ball time). Brice McCain has been invisible, which is all you hope for in a cornerback. Now…if only Shamarko Thomas could finally get a chance to swim in the deep end. Sigh.
Be Afraid. Very, Very Afraid
The Steelers now face the Atlanta Falcons, another one of those dreaded teams with a losing record that the Steelers can’t seem to beat. If you happened to notice, the New Orleans Saints (5-8) got hammered by the hapless Carolina Panthers at home by a score of 41-10. That’s because the Saints are a bad team. Just like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-11) and the New York Jets (2-11) were when they embarrassed the Steelers earlier this season. Don’t forget. The Steelers barely squeaked out wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11) and the Tennessee Titans (2-11). All five of these teams had a combined record of 0-5 in their next game after the Steelers matches and in those defeats were outscored 175-80. In other words, it wasn’t true as claimed that these teams “were better than their record”. In reality, they were terrible both before and after playing the Steelers. The Atlanta Falcons (5-8) were down 31-7 to Green Bay Monday Night by half time and despite climbing back in the game against prevent defenses they have eight losses for a reason. They are a bad team. Which means the Steelers should be afraid. Very, very afraid.
But Let’s Not Live In Our Fears
Then again, we need to be bold and courageous. So how do we come away from Atlanta with a victory and the pride of Steelers Nation intact? The answer may surprise you. It’s not about the defense. Expect them to get dominated by the Falcons talented passing offense. Nor special teams. Don’t plan on any returns on the Steelers investment. Surprise. It’s not even primarily about Ben Roethlisberger. The solution lies in the offensive line having another big game. If they can provide Ben time to work through his…well…occasional issues…and if they can make holes for Le’Veon Bell, count on the Steelers to bludgeon the Falcons like their record says they should.