The Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their 2017 regular season with a remarkable 13-3 record. This was following an unremarkable performance as they barely eked out a 28-24 victory against the victory-less Cleveland Browns.
This wasn’t a particularly unsurprising result with the Steelers sitting out their stars, including most notably Ben Roethlisberger. They also had unanimous All-Pro Antonio Brown still on the mend and idled as well.
Still, with the exception of opting to rest Cameron Heyward, the Steelers were full throttle on defense, and mostly without excuse for their sputtering performance against a very poor Browns offense.
This brings on an important question: Is this a defense ready to defend against the league elite in the playoffs?
The answer is, it may not matter, as long as Big Ben doesn’t rust up while couch surfing for a few weeks. Was sitting him out on the final regular season game the right decision? There is this and much more to discuss in this Wildcard bye edition of the Spin.
Chucky To Revive Rivalry
For those of us who find our aging minds drifting through scratchy highlight reels of Steelers glories of the past, the speculation of Jon Gruden rejoining the Oakland Raiders is an intriguing development. Many of us have a nostalgic yearning for a rekindling of the Steelers greatest rivalry of yesteryear.
Long before the idea of having the Baltimore Ravens wear purple was a glimmer in the eyes of Art Modell, the Steelers and Raiders games were a highlight on every year’s game schedule, whether in the regular season or in the playoffs. Kenny Stabler throwing left handed spirals over the shoulders of Dave Casper. Gene Upshaw and Art Shell taking on the Steel Curtain. Ted Hendricks, Lester Hayes, and Gene Atkinson going gangster on defense. The sweet hands of Freddie Biletnikoff.
There have been some brief moments of quality play by the Raiders in the past couple of decades, but they’ve mostly have been straying widely off of their “Commitment to Excellence”. Getting Chucky on the sidelines might be just what it takes for our old nemesis to rise again. Every hero needs a good villain. Steelers versus Raiders in 2018? I’m marking that one on the calendar already.
Tastes Great, Less Filling
If you’ve been following Pittsburgh long enough you know that once a segment of Steelers Nation makes up its mind on a player or coach there is no hope of changing their opinion. If you’re a Landry Jones fan you’ll believe he’s one of the best backups in the league today. Jones does a good job of backing up that claim with a typically high completion percentage and accompanying quarterback rating.
If you’re not so convinced of Jones’ prowess beyond his ability to skillfully hoist a clipboard, you were haunted by his early interception, his later embarrassing fumble and a second half performance which resulted resulted in three punts and a kneel down when one more score would have tied the game up with a neat bow.
Regardless of whether you are tastes great or less filling when it comes to Landry, all can agree there was a huge benefit in him getting a full game under his belt before the playoffs start.
Nobody calms the nerves and steadies the arm of a young, struggling quarterback like Keith Butler and his defense. This time around it was Deshone Kizer of the Browns who threw for 314 yards and a 98.5 passer rating. His overall rating for the season is 60.5 for those of you counting at home.
He had 11 touchdowns all season and three of those were compliments of the Steelers secondary in the two games they faced him. If Corey Coleman wouldn’t have dropped a pass his grandmother could have squeezed while taking her apple pie out of the oven, Kizer might have earned his first win of the year.
Statistically, the Steelers enjoyed one of their most significant years. The all-time sack record? The 2017 version of the Steelers defense now own it with 56. Are we looking at one of the all-time Steelers defenses?
I hate to be Bobby Buzzkill but this is a defense that preyed on quarterbacks by the names of Kizer, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley and T.J. Yates. The next level of quarterbacks were Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Blake Bortles and Case Keenum. Not exactly Murderers Row. In fact, the only top tier arms they faced were Matt Stafford and Tom Brady and they got shredded by both.
Well as Clint Eastwood in the role of Dirty Harry once famously said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” There’s nothing wrong with building up self esteem. It works for Kindergartners and professional football players. But delusion is a surefire playoff exit strategy.
The Steelers can’t be counting on their defense to shut down anybody in the playoffs. They can’t stop ‘em. They can only hope to contain them. That needs to be a realistic part of their strategy for the playoffs.
The Strange Thing Is…
The 2017 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is the best they’ve had in many years. Even without Ryan Shazier on the field, the team has managed to remain in the top five rankings in terms of yards allowed. Not because they can shut down the pass. They can’t. Not because they can deny the run. They don’t. It’s because they make the plays when they need to. Whether it’s a sack, or an interception, or a fumble recovery, they’ve been clutch time and time again.
Will this relatively young squad be able to continue this good fortune under the bright lights of a playoff run? Who can really say? That’s the problem. This defense is the biggest “X factor” of the Steelers Super Bowl hopes.
Every once in a while there does seem to be justice in the world…and the NFL. Like on those scant times when Al Riveron reverses a call against the Patriots…or when Heyward is honored as an All-Pro. Although Heyward was snubbed by not making the Pro Bowl, who cares? A Pro Bowl selection is like winning Mr. Congeniality in High School. Making the All-Pro list? That’s a legit NFL accomplishment, especially when you’re playing tackle on a 3-4 defense.
How It All Could End
Has anyone else noticed how close Chris Boswell has been to getting his PAT’s and Field Goals blocked? During the last couple of games it’s been within inches on rushes from the right side of the line on almost every attempt. The Steelers are going to need to make an adjustment or they could end up losing a game in the worst way possible.
Light On The Pedal
Forget about whether Jesse James caught the ball or not at the end of Patriots game. The Steelers lost their matchup against New England at the beginning of the fourth quarter. They had a 24-16 lead, and possession of the ball, with the Patriots on their back heels. Had the Steelers managed to complete their promising drive and put points on the board, they would have most likely won and earned home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead, they sputtered, and had to punt.
Their next possession? Three and out. The rest, they say, is history.
The lesson is clear. This isn’t a team that can afford to downshift its offense in the playoffs. The “milking the clock” approach should be banned from the playbook until the cows come home this year.
Could Steelers Cause The Fall Of The Patriots Empire?
Speaking of Camelot, are Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the middle of a franchise rupturing spat? Is this the beginning of the end of one of the NFL’s greatest dynasties? The Patriots are circling the wagons against rumors that the partnership of Brady and Belichick is coming to an end? Maybe it’s all being overblown, but would there be anything better than the Steelers having an opportunity to hammer the final nail in the coffin in a rematch at Foxborough? Probably not.
Of course, the Steelers have to focus one game at a time. They have to win a divisional game first, and by the slim margins they won most of their games this year, they won’t have much better than a 50/50 shot of advancing to the AFC Championship. The Patriots could fall off their high horse as well, although that’s probably even less likely.
But let’s be honest. The storyline that is by far the most intriguing is an encore performance for Pittsburgh in New England to right a terrible wrong and to ensure Super Bowl prominence remains in the Steel City.
Ben Roethlisberger has been playing second fiddle to Brady for years. Is this the year he climbs the mountain of glory again and firmly claims his place as one of the elite of his era? With an offensive line that gives him ample time, a receiving corps that is arguably the league’s finest and with the best all-around running back at his service, he has all he needs to win the Steelers next Lombardi.
Will he? In a year of crazy headlines, there is no bigger question than this one for the Steelers and it will impact how Roethlisberger’s NFL story is told for many years.