It is a Winter of Discontent for Steelers Nation.
Yet, if there is a silver lining to the Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the dreaded Baltimore Ravens by a score of 17-20 it’s that the bulk of the mourning for a lost season will be complete before the last game against the Cleveland Browns has even begun.
For there has been more grief and angst expressed by Steelers Nation this week than during the final scene of Hamlet, a cleansing catharsis by a disappointed fan base.
If ever there was an anti-climatic game…that still mattered…it would be this Sunday’s match against the hapless Browns. Should the Steelers win? Bah. Should the Steelers dominate? Yawn. Should the Steelers put together a historic smack-down of the Brownies? Yeah…who cares?
That is, if the New York Jets simultaneously do what they should in taking care of their business by beating Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills.
This opportunity for the Jets to control their own destiny is a late Christmas gift by the Steelers who failed to take care of their own business last week against one of the weakest Ravens teams in franchise history.
But after a weeklong tirade of resurgent cries of “Fire Mike Tomlin”, “Get Rid Of Kevin Colbert” and “Blow Up the Defense” Steelers Nation is progressing toward being somewhat comfortably numb heading into the last game of a rather disappointing season.
So in the spirit of premature eulogies here is a tale told by an idiot, of sound and fury, signifying nothing otherwise known as your Rapid Fire Conclusions:
Perhaps one of the most disappointing storylines in 2015 is the relative lack of growth in the Steelers defense. After five preseason games and 15 regular season matches you would be hard pressed to find much distinctive advancement in the Steelers ability to defend against the pass. The passing defense against Ryan Mallett was as abysmal as could be, particularly in the first half. In fact, the odds were greater that the Mullet would suddenly come back as a popular hairstyle than an off-the-streets, barely-had-the-cellophane-off-his-Ravens-jersey quarterback would slice up any NFL grade defense. Unfortunately, this performance was no outlier as the Steelers defense has been the career recovery spa for opposing quarterbacks all year long.
Yes…Meaningless Games Do Matter
The warning lights on the Steelers defense were flashing brightly early in the year, yet, the team refused to do anything meaningful to make adjustments. In fact, their only significant move was to trade for cornerback Brandon Boykin…who amazingly…they left to rot on the bench for most of the year. There is a reason why the Steelers still look unprepared for battle against offenses this late in the season. The blinders have been on since the preseason where they performed miserably against some mediocre offenses which resulted in a record of 1-4. Their only win was against Green Bay in a game the Steelers were dominated for three quarters. Ah…but the preseason is meaningless you say? Think again. The Chiefs were 4-0 in preseason. The Vikings finished 4-1, the Bengals were 3-1, the Broncos 3-1, the Jets 3-1, the Redskins 3-1 and the Panthers were 3-1. In fact, no team currently set to advance in the playoffs had a losing record in the preseason.
Probably the best game the Steelers defense played this year was in their week eight loss to the Cincinnati Bengals by a score of 16-10. This most likely would have been another victory for the Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger not tossed up two untimely interceptions in the fourth quarter. With injuries to starters Will Allen and Stephon Tuitt this defense featured Robert Golden at safety, Daniel McCullers at nose tackle and Steve McLendon getting full reps in the defensive end position. The Steelers limited the high flying Bengals to 78 yards rushing and 231 yards passing. So did the Steelers build on this success? No. Golden lost his starting position. McLendon played few snaps at defensive end the rest of the year and McCullers’s fine play earned him bench splinters for the remainder of the season. Tuitt is one of the rising players on the team, but it took him weeks to recover from his injury to be an impact player again. Why not keep McCullers at nose tackle and have McLendon be in full rotation with Cameron Heyward and Tuitt to have a fresh and pocket-crushing defensive line? The demotion of Golden has been a sad story. If you want to point to the death of development in the Steelers defense look no further than what happened from a personnel standpoint after this game. Mike Tomlin a players’ coach? How do you think Golden feels about losing the opportunity to get a starter’s salary next year? Or for McLendon to lose his chance to have statistics and snap counts demonstrate how dynamic he is during offseason contract negotiations? And how do you think McCullers feels about being labeled a bust because the coaches won’t put him on the field?
Tomlin’s worst decision of the 2015 campaign, and a prime example of his biggest flaw as a coach, was showcased last week when his defense lined up for the first snap against the Ravens. Just one week prior, the Steelers defense displayed one of their most embarrassing performances in the first half of their game against the Denver Broncos as heavily slumping Brock Osweiler shredded the Steelers soft coverage like coleslaw. Then, after benching Antwon Blake and shifting to an aggressive press coverage the woebegone Steelers defense came to life. Could this be the rise of a new D? Is it possible this Coach Joey Porter-influenced mentality could carry them to the playoffs and beyond? No. Not according to Tomlin. Instead, the soft defense with Antwon Blake at corner returned for another first half of drubbing by the Ravens. Game over. And, unfortunately, most likely a season shot.
Any discussion of the performance of Tomlin usually triggers an automatic response from his apologists who claim, “Why would anyone question a coach who is 91-52?” Admittedly, it’s a significant argument. In this time of parity, Tomlin’s overall record is impressive and is why national audiences can’t understand why Steelers fans would ever have a beef. Yet, it’s also true that Tomlin had the advantage of launching his career with an impressive roster of seasoned veterans that was the envy of all but a handful of other teams. Tomlin’s record is only 36-27 over the past four years and unless the Jets choke this Sunday, this will be three seasons out of the past four when the Steelers miss the playoffs. This is with a roster that Tomlin is close to 100% responsible for putting together and developing under his own system. So…why so sad, Steelers Nation? It’s because the fans deserve more. This is the number one fan base in the league capable of stripping home field advantage from just about any opponent. With Las Vegas granting the home team 3 points on average, this is a distinct advantage for any coach leading the Steelers. On top of this, the stability and pedigree of the organization means any head coach who enters the building and walks by the trophies on display is getting tossed the keys to an impressive ride. The truth is there is a great deal of pressure in being the head coach of the Steelers as the expectations are high. But it should be equally balanced with the privilege. Steelers fans have been undefeated for decades. They shouldn’t apologize or be treated as ignoramuses for desiring excellence and higher standards from their team and coaches.
The Young And The Wise
There really are two phases to Roethlisberger’s career. The Young Ben and the Wise Ben. The Young Ben was not particularly impressive from a statistical standpoint. Basically he was a game manager who relied heavily on the Steelers running game. Yet, in his youth, he had a glint in his eye, a fearless streak that resulted in some incredibly clutch, game winning drives. That phase in Ben’s career ended with his last failed set of four downs during the team’s Super Bowl loss against the Green Bay Packers years ago. In some ways, it seemed to have scarred Big Ben and since then he has lost that Golden Touch of being clutch. Which is fine, because the Wise Ben we have now matured into a prolific passing quarterback that carries his team in many different ways. He is a respected leader on the field and in the locker room. He is a huge passing talent and one of the hardest to defend players in the league. It’s just that being a “super clutch” quarterback is no longer one of his prime traits and this needs to be factored in when it comes to game planning. Is he a choke? Absolutely not. He’s a true competitor who is still cool under pressure. But to improve their win ratios the Steelers need to be a team that pads leads. Leaving the game on the line with the ball in Big Ben’s hand is just not as fool proof of a strategy as it used to be. That doesn’t limit a player’s greatness. It’s just good coaching. None of this changes that Big Ben is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and probably the best in Steelers history (with apologies to Mr. Terry Bradshaw).
A Cat Named Ben
We just realized with sadness our cat is already eleven years old. We named him Benjamin as a kitten during Roethlisberger’s phenomenal rookie season. Google forecasts Ben the cat will live on average from 13 to 15 years. Which is perhaps by no coincidence closely aligned with the life expectancy of Big Ben’s career. Long live Ben the cat. Yes…it’s fancy feasts and daily massages from here on out.
Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz
Is there still relief in sight for Steelers fans during these sad times? Yes. The Bills can pull off an upset Sunday and the Steelers can thrash the Browns, thereby allowing Pittsburgh to squeak into the playoffs. How far will the Steelers go if this minor miracle occurs? Well…that’s a question to be answered later as any good coach knows you should focus only on one miracle at a time. And alas…there is hope. Which means for Steelers Nation there remains gratitude in the fact we are granted one more Sunday to believe. An implausible Super Bowl run? This is such stuff as dreams are made on.