In the preseason many of the NFL’s talking heads, online sports sites and glossy magazines predicted the Pittsburgh Steelers would finish dead last in the AFC North. But under Mike Tomlin’s unwavering leadership the team outperformed even the most optimistic projections with a record of 11-5 earning themselves yet another division title.
It’s already a successful season for the Steelers considering their humble beginnings. Yet, it would all end on the sourest of notes if John Harbaugh and Terrell Suggs end up splashing together in a Gatorade bath at the end of Saturday’s Wildcard game.
So with this in mind, here are your Rapid Fire Conclusions:
The Contract Honored
The fans of Steelers Nation are the best on the planet and cheer their team, wear their colors and, without fail, fill stadiums across the country. All that’s required in exchange is a playoff berth with momentum heading in, as well as an occasional Super Bowl victory here and there. Well done players, coaches and the front office. You honored your part of the regular season deal in 2014.
NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth (and former Bengal) often makes note of the sophistication and knowledge of Steelers fans, a distinction rarely expressed by Pittsburgh coaches and media. Tomlin is being mentioned as a coach of the year candidate, and for good reason. But credit Steelers fans as well for getting it right. Fans clamored about the lack of discipline and preparedness early in the season and those adjustments were necessary. They argued vehemently for the return of James Harrison to the defense, and he ended up being the team’s best free agent addition. They insisted on more of Martavis Bryant and Stephon Tuitt and less of Cam Thomas and all three moves strengthened the team. The fans saw the obvious need to sit Cortez Allen apparently long before the coaches. They hollered for less bubble screens and more power runs and the yards have piled on as result. It’s unlikely you’ll hear fans get credit for being right during a Tomlin press conference, but at least you heard it here.
A Team To Be Trusted
The good news for the Steelers is there are no teams like the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints or Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs so the Steelers should have a gold-paved road to the Big Game, right? In full credit to the coaching staff and players, the Steelers are beyond their early year struggles and frustrating inconsistencies and now are a team to be trusted by its fans and feared by its opponents. The Steelers have shook off their shakiness and after winning five of their last six have as good a chance of making a run as any other team in the tourney.
Closer Than You Think
If players like Brice McCain and Antwon Blake can continue to progress in positive fashion the Steelers may only be one high-end cornerback away from having a dominating secondary. The safety position remains a question mark but Mike Mitchell is slowly getting more comfortable in Dick LeBeau’s system and Shamarko Thomas is a Christmas present yet to be opened. With the front seven displaying an exciting combination of youth and promise the next great Steelers defense of the future may be just a year away.
A ConVincing Season
The story of Sean Spence’s heroic comeback from injury has been told many times this season. But a much less heralded tale is the staying power of Vince Williams. Outside of Harrison, Williams may be the most Steeler-like linebacker on the team in terms of temperament and toughness. It’s easy to forget he is only in his second year in the league. He may be the next Larry Foote, a player that overcomes stopwatch limitations to become a solid and long-time member of the team.
Steelers To Get Uncoordinated?
Tomlin’s most important offseason focus may be the effort to keep his staff intact. With the Steelers vastly improved from the beginning of the season, many of the coaches on Tomlin’s tree may seem to be low hanging fruit for the have-nots of the NFL. Keith Butler may not wait another year for LeBeau to retire, and if the linebacker position is not available to Joey Porter he may be choose employment elsewhere. Carnell Lake is a sleeper candidate for defensive coordinator and Mike Munchak will be an obvious selection for offensive coordinator for any team wanting to build their offense from the line out. And all of the Todd Haley Haters out there may have their dream come true in the departure of the team’s offensive coordinator. Haley boasts the second rated offense and has matured greatly since his ill-fated stint in Kansas City. Don’t be surprised if a team gives him another flyer as top dog.
Candy and Nuts
Yes…if if’s and but’s were candy and nuts…we get it…but if the Steelers had beaten the woeful Jets (4-12) this season they would have had tiebreaker advantages over the New England Patriots in at least a couple of categories (conference record, shared opponents). Hopefully, that doesn’t prove out to be the difference in a Super Bowl entry.
What’s The Point Of No Return?
It’s official. The Steelers kickoff return team managed to go an entire season without taking one past the fifty. Heck, even getting beyond the twenty took an act of Congress and Markus Wheaton ended up with his fair share of sitters on the fifteen yard line. For those who blamed Dri Archer for all of the kickoff return woes at the beginning of the season, the young man is due an apology. The Steelers might not have done better by sticking with Archer, but they couldn’t have done much worse and his benching certainly didn’t aid his development this year.
Under The Radar
This is the first time in many years Steelers fans seem to be looking beyond an impending Ravens game. Many are already busy speculating about away games versus Denver or New England. The return of a well rested and healed Haloti Ngata (following his suspension for PEDs) should provide a major boost to the Baltimore Ravens defense. Joe Flacco typically plays well in these critical games at Heinz Field and players like Steve Smith are desperate to make a Super Bowl run. If the Steelers take the Ravens lightly in any form or fashion the weather could end up being a bad case of Purple Rain.
The Game Is On The Line
Most everyone is talking about Le’Veon Bell’s status as the most significant factor in the upcoming game against the Ravens, and it’s certainly important. However; the real test will be with the Steelers offensive line. Munchak has his squad playing as good as any Steelers line in recent memory and their pass protection performance against the Cincinnati Bengals was literally epic. The Ravens have a front seven that will want to challenge the manhood of the Steelers in front of their own home crowd. But if the Pittsburgh line is up to the task and give Ben Roethlisberger time to connect with his talented receivers, Bell will be able to heal while watching his team dominate.