The Pittsburgh Steelers head into Miami to face the Dolphins on Sunday with the anticipated outcome to be all sunshine and beaches.
So why does something smell fishy?
It’s that familiarly sheepish mood of Steelers Nation regarding games against 1-4 foes like the Dolphins that inspire a collective baaaaaddd feeling about this one.
To say that the Steelers don’t struggle in these types of matches is to be historically ignorant. A loss here would be a painful poking of old wounds on a scarred body.
Sadly, the New England Patriots won’t be as accommodating to a “Redemption Sunday” as the Kansas City Chiefs were, so there is absolutely no upside to a loss to the Flippers.
No. This isn’t a must-win situation. It’s a “you better win” scenario which makes Miami a scary opponent.
So, though still admittedly buzzing from the Steelers recent fabulous performances, here is your cautionary tale version of the Spin:
Spirit of ‘76
For those of you not over-the-hill enough to have enjoyed the Steelers glory days of the 70’s, you may be getting a taste of the past with this year’s Pittsburgh squad. The closest comparison would be with the Steelers 1979 team where the vaunted Steel Curtain defense was in decline and the team needed to rely more on the aerial magic of QB Terry Bradshaw, WR Lynn Swann and WR John Stallworth to win games. The biggest difference between this year’s team and the great one of the past is the current Steelers defense is not nearly as formidable. However; this year’s defense has the comparative advantage of being on the rise.
CB Ross Cockrell experienced the full highs and lows of being an NFL cornerback in the Steelers 31-13 victory over the New York Jets. Working against one of the most physical receivers in the league in Brandon Marshall, Cockrell’s performance was more UFC match than precision cornerbacking. Did he provide smothering coverage? No. Were his pass interference penalties acceptable? No. But the man competes. And after years of watching Pittsburgh cornerbacks play twelve yards off on third and four’s, the young player offers a refreshing change of attitude.
The Steelers have a dilemma. They have a player with an All Pro ceiling in oft-injured LB Ryan Shazier. But the team tackles better when his replacement, LB Vince Williams, is on the field. This is a good problem to have, but one that shouldn’t be mishandled by Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler. The team needs to be creative in keeping Williams involved in the defense and the simple solution is to blur the distinction between edge rushers, where the team is lacking firepower, and middle linebackers. If the Steelers are going to take the next big step in their defense, they’ll need a way to keep Williams in the mix when Shazier returns from injury.
Vince Williams isn’t the only one impressing and deserving of continued playing time. Players like S Jordan Dangerfield, S Robert Golden and other young uns like CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis are making personal statements as well. The Steelers “next man up” philosophy relies on one guy getting all of the time and the backup secretly hoping the man playing before him trips over a piece of turf. Rather than “next man up”, why not shift to an “all men in” strategy and actively rotate players? There are few superstars on this defense, but there are a lot of players growing in stature. There is no reason there should be only be eleven slices of the defensive pie.
If the Steelers continue in a winning direction this year, much of it will be attributed to the wondrous sound of silence. That is, in the headlines. So far, there haven’t been players in the news for all of the wrong reasons. No alley knifings or night club scuffles. No “on the way to the team plane” reefer madness. There haven’t been any publicly announced failed drug tests…and thankfully, no incidents of domestic violence. One of Coach Mike Tomlin’s greatest attributes is his leadership in the locker room and it’s clearly being highlighted this year. This, in addition, to a Rooney-inspired drafting strategy where character counts. While being sure to knock on wood…or better, a grove of redwood trees…it’s time to acknowledge the coaches…and encourage the players to keep eyes on the prize.
Top Of The Mountain
Speaking of wandering eyes…the most difficult position for any NFL receiver is to be considered the best, number one, top of the heap. It’s hard to get there, and even harder to stay there. Many of the prima donnas flame out. Now that it’s WR Antonio Brown’s well deserved time at the top, his next step to greatness will not be through fancy shoes, end zone dances or sideline scuffles with his quarterback. It will be all about winning championships. That is the glaring omission from his rapidly written Hall of Fame resume. The greatest players realize that drawing double and triple coverage is as important to their team as leading the game in catches or touchdowns. Brown’s competition is now against the Jerry Rice’s of the game and if he wants to score big, he’ll need to want a Lombardi in his hands as much as the football.
Facing An Offensive Offensive Line
If ever there was a game for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense to get healthy with their pass rush, this would be it. The Miami Dolphins offensive line is functioning so poorly that two of last week’s starters were shown the exit door. Although the Steelers will be without their star lineman in DE Cameron Heyward, they need to seize the opportunity to show they can make an opposing quarterback sweat. One huge positive step last week was the elevation of LB James Harrison to the starting rotation. If he gets a similar nod this week, expect the old warrior to make a strong move on the team’s all-time sack record.
If You’re Even, You’re Leavin’
Perhaps the most significant…and startling…part of the Steelers impressive victory against the Jets was the play calling in the fourth quarter. Rather than “taking the air out of the ball”, ala Cowher Power, the Steelers aired it out all of the way and the result was a blowout. If the 2016 year is going to be more Secretariat than Mr. Ed it will be because of the team’s ability to confidently pull away from teams in the fourth quarter. With the firepower of this offense, K Chris Boswell should only be used to win games in case of emergency.
Drawing The Line
Blame it on QB Ben Roethlisberger? Is it Coach Mike Tomlin’s fault? Why is it that the Steelers often choke on these “sure to win” games? The answer is probably more closely tied to the line of scrimmage. For the first time in years, the Steelers are impressive on both sides of line. Splash plays come from your star players, but the consistency of champions comes from the guys in the trenches. That’s why this year will be different.
The White Whale
Normally, a game against a struggling 1-4 team like the Dolphins should be a dip in the pool. But for the Tomlin-lead Steelers these games are Captain Ahab’s Moby Dick. But the past is the past. This a new year. Tomlin gets the whale. Steelers 34, Dolphins 17.