‘Twas a week before Christmas and all through Steelers Nation houses, the “fire Mike Tomlin” hecklers are quiet as mouses.
This, after Mike Tomlin brought his team from the brink four weeks and a seemingly eternity ago from a dismally disappointing 4-5 start. Now the team is 8-5, following an impressive four game winning streak topped by a 27-20 snowy smackdown of the Buffalo Bills.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are back to being top of the charts and number one in the hearts of the Black and Gold faithful as the team sets to face the Cincinnati Bengals who have been more kitty cat this season than eye of the tiger.
But wait! Before the “Tomlin Forever” contingent gets too excited, the reality is this newfound lovefest for the Steelers coach could come to a jarring halt if the team fails to make it in the playoffs.
We are here to remind you, as it is the Spin’s honor-bound duty, that we are just another ill timed Ben Roethlisberger interception or rookie secondary mistake away from being onlookers during the post season.
Must win against the Bengals this Sunday? No. But for AFC North division and Wildcard contention tiebreakers it’s an absolutely essential addition to the team’s recent Redemption Tour.
With a team this young on defense, it’s also incredibly important for the belief to continue…even to the point of delusion…if they will have any chance of competing against the Tom Brady’s of the league in the post season.
So…with the drums of anticipation continuing to rise across so many frozen tundras, here is your weekly Spin:
Young And Restless
It was only a month ago when fans were busting the chops of rookies CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis and labeling them as swings and misses. Now, just a few weeks removed, the fan base is back to calling this one of greatest Steelers drafts in recent history. And Burns, Davis and DT Javon Hargrave are providing ample evidence that they may indeed be one of those rare and roster-radicalizing 1-2-3 draft trifectas. Perhaps even more telling is how the Steelers coaching staff put their reputation on the line by inserting these kids into the starting lineup, something that would have been unheard of for the team just a few years back. The end result is the Steelers defense is one of the fast risers in the NFL, as well as one of the youngest—Mr. James Harrison excluded. These accolades are coming even with the team’s best defender in DE Cameron Heyward watching from the sideline. If they can keep the belief climbing you are looking at the early days of the next great Steelers defense.
Proper Places Please
Much of the Steelers success over the past four games can be attributed to the defensive pressure that has…finally…materialized. Of course, it has much to do with Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler starting to serve up some blitzes on his silver platter, but don’t underestimate the importance of players like DE Javon Hargrave getting to play in their more natural positions. Although he was out last week, allowing him to play at the end position in relief of Heyward has been a revelation. He looked like he has when he was playing against Division II competition in college. Prior to this, at the nose, he’s been mostly invisible this season. Even the “Never Danners” had to reluctantly admit that DT Daniel McCullers put on the most Casey Hampton-like run plugging performance of the season against the Bills by demanding double-teams and sealing the center of the line when he was on the field. Canceling the ridiculous outside linebacker rotation of mediocrity and rightfully putting LB Bud Dupree and Harrison as more permanent bookends may end up being the most significant defensive decision of the year. Let’s hope the Steelers coaches continue to adhere to these wise choices.
The Bullet Train
For the early years of LB Ryan Shazier’s career the prevailing statement regarding him always was, “If only the guy could stay healthy.” Now the dude has been healthy…and Wow! There is no question he needs to continue to grow in areas of coverage against running backs and tight ends, but he has easily been the most impactful player on the defense. He’s got more splash plays than Shamu and the more that the rest of the team can play their positions, the more Shazier will be Shazaam. He’s on the brink of being a perennial All-Pro.
Many years ago, when the Steelers had a dominant offensive line, there was continual “lineman controversies”. Strong players like OT Justin Strelzyk, who would have been able to start on dozens of other rosters in the NFL, couldn’t get on the field for the Steelers because those before him were equally strong. With the emergence of OG B.J. Finney and even the good play of OT Chris Hubbard in six linemen sets, the offensive line is starting to look deep. Don’t forget that players like T Ryan Harris and promising rookie T Jerald Hawkins will be back from injury next year. Didn’t it seem like just a few years ago when our offensive line was a national disgrace?
The Quiet Man
Want to credit an individual for the Steelers turnaround to potential NFL elite again? You might want to give that recognition to T Marcus Gilbert. It’s not a coincidence the team suffered on offense when he was injured this season. It’s also not a surprise the running game and pass protection healed up the moment Gilbert’s injury healed. Want a dark horse offensive MVP candidate for the team? No, he won’t beat out RB Le’Veon Bell by any stretch, but don’t underestimate his value to the team.
You’ll have to excuse those of us who suffered through the dark ages between the retirement of Hall of Famer QB Terry Bradshaw and future Hall of Famer Big Ben. It didn’t matter how good our defense was, or how dominant our running game could be, without that blue chip quarterback to win those tough games in those difficult situations the end result was the same: a season ended with a quarterback walking off the field in shame. The Spin says the Steelers number one target in the next few drafts should be the future franchise quarterback. Draft two per year until you get it right? That’s fine here. Yes, Big Ben has several strong years ahead, but Hall of Fame players like QB Aaron Rodgers and QB Steve Young got the benefit of playing behind legends like QB Brett Favre and QB Joe Montana and the Steelers great quarterback of the next generation should get the same opportunity.
The Big Switch
With computers, everything comes down to binary code. That means it’s either a “1” or a “0”. The same can be said with an unstoppable NFL offense. If you’ve got a team that can be equally dominant with the pass or the run, then there is no defense built to shut them down. Big Ben has proven he can run an unbelievably potent passing attack. He showed it all of last year. With the Steelers recent surge, they’ve demonstrated they can be prolific on the ground with Bell’s historic performance last week proving that point emphatically. But the team, under Roethlisberger, has not yet shown that they can flip the switch between the passing and rushing dominance at a play’s notice. The Steelers won’t beat the Baltimore Ravens if they get stubborn with the run. They won’t defeat a team like the Denver Broncos if they become predictable with the pass. And they certainly won’t outsmart Bill Belichick if they are one-dimensional in the least. No. For the Steelers to be Super Bowl bound this year, their quarterback will need to master the switch. The Cincinnati Bengals would prove to be the perfect team to perfect these electronics.
Earning Their Stripes
Going into the Bengals game this weekend with even a hint of an attitude of, “Well…technically, we don’t really need to win this one” will spell doom for the Steelers season. If it sounds like Spin is spinning a broken record with these “must win prophecies” you can blame it on the four game losing streak by the Steelers earlier this year. This team, and its young defense in particular, cannot afford another bad game. And losing to the Bengals with their 5-7-1 record would be a bad loss. It will be difficult, because the Bengals are cleaning up their act a bit and they are still mathematically alive. But the Spin says the roll continues. Steelers 31, Bengals 21.