The Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 rendition heads toward the middle of the season appearing to be a middle-of-the road team following their disappointing 23-13 setback to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Steelers now have an underwhelming 4-3 record, with the worst of it being all three of their losses are in the AFC.
But does the turning point lie just ahead? Is it possible the Steelers are about to get in the Zone?
The cup half-fullers will point to resilience of the team and the caliber of the coaching and front office staff in handling injuries and suspensions and will trumpet the imminent return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to the helm as the dawning of team greatness.
The cup half-emptiers will lament the number of injuries and the distractions of suspensions, scratch their head over some of the recurring coaching missteps and front office caused personnel deficiencies and will warn the team is not playoff worthy without a fully healthy Roethlisberger.
Almost all will agree that since the preseason started it’s been a bizarre, otherworldly, difficult to grasp season.
Kind of like we’re all traveling through a dimension not only of sight and sound but one where the boundaries are that of imagination.
Fortunately, there’s a signpost up ahead…and it says, “Here Are Your Rapid Fire Conclusions”:
Prior to the Chiefs encounter Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin was asked if he was concerned about this being a “trap game”. His response was something akin to “that’s something for you people to concern yourself with” meaning the pointy headed sports media. Well…Coach…after yet another season where your team has lost to teams like this year’s Chiefs and the Ravens who have been the doormat of the rest of the league, maybe it’s time for you to be a Believer in trap games and plan accordingly.
The Tomzak Effect
Get used to having Landry Jones around for quite some time as a backup for the team. He has a great work ethic, is intelligent, is well liked in the locker room and has earned the respect of coaches. He’s also proved to be adequate in a pinch when the team needs him. These are characteristics which will prove valuable for the team as a back-up or third string quarterback. But also on display was why he will never be the quarterback of the future. Just as was experienced with former Steelers quarterbacks like Mike Tomzak, arm strength deficiencies take much of the pressure off of the opposing secondary and put a low ceiling on the offense. Some of Jones’s throws on Sunday won’t go unnoticed by opposing defensive coordinators. You can’t hide the arm. Expect the Steelers to continue fishing in subsequent drafts until they find a Roethlisberger successor. Fortunately, they have years to do so.
How Do You Like Me Now?
How painful were the studio highlights showcasing the 43 yard touchdown scoring fumble recovery return by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Howard Jones? Jones, the Steelers camp phenom in 2014 couldn’t impress Pittsburgh coaches enough to get a roster spot this season but now has both a touchdown and two sacks in his last couple of games for the Bucs.
Speaking of Edge Rushers
In case you’re counting, the sack output by Howard Jones in his past couple of games doubles the season tally for the other Jones…Jarvis that is…who only has one this season for the Steelers. How is the starting rotation of Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats faring against the “backups” of rookie Bud Dupree and James Harrison? Team J. Jones/Moats has a combined 19 tackles, 12 assists and 2.5 sacks. Team Dupree/Harrison has 25 tackles, 13 assists, 5 sacks, 1 pass defended and one forced fumble. Who should be starting?
The Defense Rests
With seven games booked in the 2015 season it’s time to start coming to grips with who the Steelers defense are this year. Talk of radical improvements will need to be sidelined until the offseason and 2016 draft hysteria launches. At this point…they are who they is. And that is a defensive unit that will live and die on the health of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, that will have to cope with mediocre production as long as the rotating edge rusher scheme is employed and with serious liabilities in coverage…especially when it comes to covering tight ends. They have shown the ability to make timely stops and to force quality turnovers on occasion but they don’t have the roster to be able to shut down anyone…including the woeful injury stricken offense of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Which means all hope for a season of sunshine will be put on the broad shoulders and fragile knee of Roethlisberger with his expected return this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Historically, it’s taken a game or two for Big Ben to shake off the rust when returning from injury, so let’s hope that history won’t be repeated as he’ll have to perform at a high level for the Steelers to pull off a victory.
A Thing Of Beauty
But equally important to the remainder of the season and the hopes for extended play through January is a brand new approach to the offense. There were adjustments in the first few games of the season for the absence of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant and…of course…there were major shifts in philosophy with Mike Vick and Landry Jones behind center. Yet now, it needs to be all guns blazing for all sixty minutes with the impressive set of weapons that Big Ben will have at his disposal. No more excuses. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley needs to instantly shift his squad to embracing a firm expectation they should “score on every possession” even with large leads in the second half. This is if they are to have any hope of being a real contender this season as the defense just can’t be trusted to do much more than slow offenses down. There should not be another press conference when Mike Tomlin steps up and says, “It wasn’t pretty…but…” From here on out, the offense needs to be a work of art.
In many ways, the upcoming game against the Cincinnati Bengals provides the perfect opportunity at the perfect time of the season for the Steelers to shoot a warning shot across the bow of the NFL. As poor as Tomlin is at playing teams that are 1-5, 1-8 or 1-14 for that matter…his temperament and coaching style is customized for being the underdog. In many ways, this win is more important for the Bengals than it is for the Steelers. They have the opportunity to virtually lock up the AFC North and they have a roster playing at a high level that should be expected to do so. To lose would be considered a serious choke.
What’s Really At Stake
For the Steelers a loss would mean having to forget about the Bengals and would require them to prematurely focus on the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills of the league. Begging for AFC Wildcard scraps would be a disappointing way to spend the entire second half of what was supposed to be such a promising season. Steelers Nation will be pulling hard for an upset this Sunday to keep the division battle alive and to finish the first half of a bizarre season…with a sparkle in their eyes.