A 43-14 tomahawking of the Kansas City Chiefs last week proved to be the perfect antacid for the Pittsburgh Steelers following their Philadelphia-induced heartburn the week prior.
Their home matchup this weekend against the New York Jets will be the opening act of three game tour of the AFC East that includes a winnable contest away against the Miami Dolphins and then a mega-showdown against the New England Patriots, who will be formidable with quarterback Tom Brady once again deflating opponents…and who knows what else.
If the Steelers manage to sweep this trio of critical games they’ll head into their bye week as a surging AFC Super Bowl favorite. If they stumble more than once during this period they’ll force their fans to start mulling Wild Card implications.
But…hey…one game at a time. The Jets come into Pittsburgh desperate for a win and with few forecasting them as victors. Which, unfortunately means the table is set for the Steelers to feast on crow…a delicacy they’ve partaken in all too frequently during Coach Mike Tomlin’s notable reign.
So, with a mystery dinner in the oven, it’s time to get spinning:
Let’s face it. The Steelers just don’t do well in Denver or New England during the playoffs. The difference between the Black and Gold finishing 10-6 in the regular season and 13-3 will probably determine whether they will be Super Bowl bound or super disappointed. Every AFC game will be critical this season and the chances of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being healthy for sixteen games straight leading into the playoffs are not mile high. That makes any game where Big Ben is in the huddle is just about must win if it’s a Super Bowl or bust year as many believe.
Hopefully last week’s impressive offensive crushing of the Chiefs is enough to wind up Big Ben and keep him on time and ticking off touchdowns for the remainder of the year. When you’re a player drawing 100 million off of the team’s year-over-year salary cap, it’s not unreasonable to have unreasonable expectations. With running back Le’Veon Bell back on the field, Roethlisberger has an embarrassment of on field riches to match his off field income. As long as he has a seat at the NFL’s weekly high stakes table, there is no reason he can’t win out with the cards he’s been dealt.
Still, no one is saying Big Ben can win a Super Bowl on his own. His offensive line needs to give him time to pass…and even more importantly…keep him upright. The probable season-ending news about tackle Ryan Harris is troubling and trading for another quality flex tackle would probably be worth the cost. Most important will be the strength at the middle of the line as Roethlisberger deals better with breaches at the ends than with a push up the middle where he likes to step up out of the pressure. The game against the Jets will provide another opportunity for the Steelers to show they can hold up against top defensive tackles.
There is nothing that heals an ailing veteran faster than a young player on the rise. No one should be surprised about guard Ramon Foster’s rapid return to the lineup from injury this week as he’s one of the toughest, most reliable players on the squad. However; surely the well-regarded backup play of fan favorite guard B.J. Finney played a part in hastily patching up Foster’s wounds.
So much was said about the impact of the Bell’s return to the field of play, and for good reason. But equally heartening was Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley’s commitment to keep running back DeAngelo Williams in the game plan. The two-back creativity that Haley displayed not only rightfully featured the out-of-this-world talents of Bell, but ensured that Williams, a major talent in his own rights, was not a forgotten man. Well played Haley.
If the Steelers offense continues to perform at the level it did last week over the next few games you can expect that Haley’s name will already start being floated out as next year’s great head coaching prospect. Yes, his past performance as “The Man” was a bit of a showstopper a few years back. But he has matured as a leader under the mentorship of Tomlin and all of the talk of him suffering from sideline temper tantrums is just words on a faded newspaper. Still, is head coach a position Haley should take? Some guys are designed to be great vice-presidents and he seems to be flourishing in the role of offensive coordinator with the Steelers, the same rank that made him famous with the Arizona Cardinals years ago. His best career move may be riding sidecar until Roethlisberger heads out to pasture.
One of the positive things that’s been happening quietly in the background is that quarterback Zach Mettenberger is getting unpressured time to learn the Steelers playbook. Although he is still a young player, he is veteran enough to be able to make good use of this opportunity to learn the position under the wings of a future Hall of Famer. Certainly, by the time the bye week arrives in a few weeks, Mettenberger ought to be ready to answer the call if Big Ben needs to be spelled and Landry Jones stumbles in relief. At the least, the Steelers would be wise to use some mop up time to see what they have in a player they once targeted in the 2014 draft.
Speaking of the draft, perhaps it’s time to free some of the Steelers players from the burden of their NFL selection. Would there be such disappointment in first rounder linebacker Jarvis Jones if he had been drafted in the 5th round and was seen as a serviceable backup? What if safety Shamarko Thomas was selected in the 7th round and served the team only in the role as one of the league’s top special teams players? First round draft selections like wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and cornerback Justin Gilbert have been given a second chance on the Steelers roster with reset expectations. Maybe it’s time to do the same with Jones and Thomas.
It would be hard to find a surname that more aptly describes a player’s style of play than that of S Jordan Dangerfield. His performance last week in relief of the injured Robert Golden was one of the most pleasant surprises of the game. With the quality play of Mike Mitchell and Golden, combined with the rising value of rookie Sean Davis, the safety position is starting to crest with potential.
One Jet arriving at Heinz Field with a sizable chip on his shoulder will be former Steelers DT Steve McLendon. He will be motivated to demonstrate to his past teammates and coaches he was much more than just a nose tackle…a limiting designation that meant he spent too much time last year watching plays from the sidelines. It’s still baffling why the Steelers didn’t work harder to keep him part of their defensive line rotation for the remainder of his career.
The rise of wide receiver Sammie Coates in filling the vital role of the offense’s One Trick Pony is good news for the young player, but it may also be dimming the enthusiasm for the return next year of suspended wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Coates may not be quite as dynamic, but he’s proven to be a consistent deep threat and has shown to have more trustworthy hands. With Eli Rogers flashing as the team’s slot receiver of the future and Markus Wheaton possibly getting resigned at a bargain rate, the Steelers may decide a trade of Bryant will be better for the player and the team.
The Steelers defense had a resurgence of play against the Chiefs and many credited this success as due to better tackling by the team. This is certainly true, but perhaps the reason for this could be best attributed by the placement of linebacker Vince Williams on the field. Williams had one of his best games as a pro and in one perhaps career-changing moment, offered a stiff rebuke to those who say he doesn’t have the speed or athleticism to excel at this level.
The Power Of Positive Thinking
This has been such a cheery edition of the Spin it must be making you dizzy. Blame it on the Steelers lights-out performance last weekend. We’re all still giddy. But the shadow lurking is that this glee could be replaced with angst in a heartbeat if the team falls to the Jets…which sadly is quite possible. New York has been competitive in every game with the exception of their loss to the Chiefs. As good as the Steelers are under Tomlin at bouncing back from disappointing defeats, they demonstrate a disturbing pattern of underperforming in games such as this when the world is expecting them to win. Still, plan on the Steelers bucking this past trend although the Jets will only grudgingly give up the ghost. The Steelers line will have their battles and the pressure up the middle will give Roethlisberger some fits. But talent will prevail and the Steelers will pull away in the fourth quarter. Steelers 27 Jets 17.