With an impressive 8-2 record coming into Sunday Night’s game against the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh Steelers are well on their way to reasserting themselves as the NFL’s Lord of the Rings.
Will Pittsburgh be able to triumphantly declare this season as the Return of the King when it comes to Super Bowl glory?
It seems like a decade ago when the Steelers were in serious contention for winning their seventh Lombardi Trophy. In fact, it was February 6, 2011 when Pittsburgh fell short to the then Aaron Rogers-led Packers by a score of 31-25.
That was half of Ben Roethlisberger’s career ago.
Since then, the Steelers have struggled to regain their dominance in the NFL. Even in the past couple of years when they have boasted the offensive potential for greatness, they’ve fallen well short of expectations.
And even though the Black and Gold made it to the AFC Championship last season, their eventual drubbing by the New England Patriots exposed Pittsburgh to be well below the line of a dynastic champion the franchise aspires to always be.
Ah…those Patriots. Certainly, in recent history, as well as prominently again this season, New England is where the fires of Mordor have raged.
Yet, following the Steelers compelling victory over the upstart Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh is giving hope to its fans that the dynasty could be on the rise again.
Will the Tennessee win be the harbinger of great things to come? Or was it an outlier on what will eventually be a year of disappointment?
Green Bay put the Steelers championship dreams in a sleeper hold six years ago. Will they put a serious dent in them again this year with a big upset victory?
There is much at stake with this game. Let’s explore it further in this week’s Spin.
Before we start asking for seconds and thirds at the dinner table, it’s only fair to pause for a moment of Thanksgiving for the Steelers efforts thus far this season. Eight wins and only two losses! This is already shaping up to be a season to remember. Coach Mike Tomlin and his squad have overcome controversy and big distractions to keep a steady hand on the season thus far. Le’Veon Bell has shown he can rise above his contract dispute, and Antonio Brown has demonstrated he’s more than worthy of his pay grade.
The defense has been the story of the year, with players like DE Cam Heyward, DE Stephon Tuitt and LB Vince Williams showing that all that is gold does not glitter. There is the rise of youth in players like DT Javon Hargrave, S Sean Davis, CB Artie Burns, CB Mike Hilton, LB Bud Dupree and LB T.J. Watt. Then there is a generational player like Ryan Shazier who is redefining the role of what an inside linebacker can do. There is much to be thankful for indeed. Now pass that other turkey leg, please. We’re still very hungry. This is Steelers Nation, after all.
Defense wins championships? Not this year. There is no super boring, Ray Lewis style defensive team that will make it all of the way to the Super Bowl this year. This year’s championship won’t be won by some quarterback named Trent Dilfer. The most dominant teams in the league are the New Orleans Saints, the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. You can add to that list the Steelers who showed up against the Tennessee Titans. That’s the level of offense it will take to go all of the way this year. You won’t be able to shut down the Drew Brees or Tom Bradys of this year’s NFL. Even young Carson Wentz is looking for real. There is no more winning ugly for the Steelers this year. It’s a beauty contest from here on out.
The 3rd Down Solution
Hopefully, the impressive win by the Steelers over the Titans won’t be merely an temporary antidote to Dick LeBeau’s defense in Tennessee, but instead will be the new blueprint for offensive success for the remainder of this season. That is, to flip the script. As talented as Le’Veon Bell is, there is no reason to run this offense as if it was the Jerome Bettis version of 2005. The Steelers have too many passing weapons to be operating with a “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality.
Pittsburgh has been underwhelming this year with the model of getting three yards on first, two on second, and then hoping for the best on third down. The team should avoid third downs altogether. Pass on first down, and pass again if you fall short on second. Le’Veon Bell’s average yards-per-carry will skyrocket, if the offense leads by establishing the passing game and if he is integrated more fully into it.
Rest Of The Alphabet
The Steelers Killer B’s, who include Ben Roethliesberger, WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell, are certainly mostly living up to their moniker. Brown is leading the league in receiving yards and Bell is atop in rushing yards. Yet, if the Steelers are to truly hit their peak, they will need to include more of the offense. WR Eli Rogers didn’t forget how to play the game. He just needs touches. That certainly goes for WR Martavis Bryant and WR Justin Hunter as well. Heck, with WR JuJu Smith-Schuster sitting this game out, it would be a good time for WR Darrius Heyward-Bey to show he can still stretch a defense. It’s time to pull out and polish up all of the weapons so the Steelers can be fully locked and loaded for the stretch run.
Give Landry A Shot
The Steelers will be well suited to start giving QB Landry Jones a lot more playing time. That is, because they will be blowing out teams by the fourth quarter. It will be the same reason why RB James Conner will be getting the lion’s share of the final carries of the game. The Steelers have a sixth gear, as they demonstrated against the Titans. It’s time for them to start shifting to that gear with consistency for the remainder of the year.
There is a clear reason why the Steelers should feel free to let loose with their offensive firepower and go full guns a blazing. It’s their defense. Not that this D has been a dominating force, but it’s because they’ve saved the offense’s bacon time and time again this year. Whether it’s a timely interception, or a stop when needed be, the defense has proven worthy of the team’s trust. They give Big Ben and his colleagues the safety net they require to do their hire wire act with confidence.
Remember when players who wore the number 24 for the Steelers couldn’t catch? Bless his heart, CB Ike Taylor remains one of the top cover cornerbacks to have played the game, but those two Comedy Hour hands of his are what will keep him out of Hall of Fame consideration. Last week’s interception by Coty Sensabaugh, as well as the three others gathered by his teammates, are a reminder of how far along this secondary has come in the past few years. The Steelers are now tied for fifth in the league for total interceptions with 12. This to go with their second ranked 34 sacks is why they have become a truly dangerous defense.
At the beginning of the season, there would have been few who would have put the Green Bay Packers contest as a “gimmee” game for the Steelers. Yet, a rash of injuries, most notably to QB Aaron Rodgers, has the Packers packing much less of a punch. This doesn’t mean it won’t be a highly entertaining match. These are the two strongest fan bases in the league.
And, it must be said, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth are the best in the game today when it comes to announcers. Collinsworth, in particular, is rather amazing on how accurate and relevant his commentary is throughout the games. Usually, those national announcers are so far off the mark it’s laughable. But, Collinsworth is often spot on. He definitely does his homework. The spotlight will make this a big one.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers? Sunday Night Football? Talk about a Fellowship of the Ring.