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The Perspective Of An Average Steelers Fan: Time Is Slipping Into The Future

I’m not as optimistic going into this season as I was at this point last year. In 2017, many saw the AFC as a showdown between the NFL Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers; a chance for the Black & Gold to redeem a 2016 season’s conference championship loss to the Death Star that hovers over New England. Last season, I believed that while several players were very important; only one – Ben Roethlisberger – was indispensable for the Steelers to have a shot at a 7th Lombardi Trophy.

I was proven wrong. Last season, the Steelers were very fortunate relative to other NFL teams when it came to injuries but the late season-ending and perhaps career-ending back injury to Ryan Shazier proved insurmountable. The defense was already suspect but contributed some game winning performances when the supposed supreme offense sputtered early in the season.

In the 12 games Ryan played; Pittsburgh’s defense averaged giving up 294.7 total yards a game – 98.9 on the ground which when you consider the Bears & Jaguars running for 222 & 231 yards respectively was a pretty stout run defense in the other 10 games. In the final four regular season games without Ryan; Steeler’s opponents averaged 343.5 yards of total offense a game; 126.75 yards rushing. While a direct correlation is impossible to conclude; the loss of Ryan Shazier resulted in the Steelers defense giving up nearly 50 yards more a game – almost 30 on the ground. Dave Bryan just posted an article on this very subject.

The attempt to replace Ryan’s playmaking skills with a committee of inside linebackers including the signing of Sean Spence was ineffectual. Head coach Mike Tomlin ignored his “next man up” philosophy as neither LJ Fort nor Tyler Matakevich were given the opportunity to start in Ryan’s place. Dirty Red did have a shoulder injury which limited him to special team’s play but the lack of confidence in Fort was apparent by the snap counts in those last four regular season games and the playoff loss:

Inside Linebacker Snap Counts End of 2017 Season
Opponent LJ Fort Matakevich Moats* Spence V Williams Total D Snaps
Ravens 8 0 19 34 53 64
Patriots 15 0 0 44 44 59
Texans 12 0 0 43 43 55
Browns 20 0 18 43 43 65
Jaguars 13 0 0 54 50 61

(* Moats was used some at inside linebacker – these snap counts may include some of his play at outside linebacker)

Apart from the Patriots; the other teams that Pittsburgh played at the end of the regular season were not offensive juggernauts which makes the leap in total yards given up even more stark.

The Steelers have not officially ruled out Ryan Shazier playing in 2018; but we all know that likelihood is very improbable. While it is very encouraging that Ryan is recovering and spending a lot of time with the Steelers organization; it is apparent that a top priority is acquiring another inside linebacker through trade, free agency and/or the draft.

There are other areas that the team must address to improve their chances for a successful 2018 season. As an average Steelers fan; my standard for a successful Steelers season is qualifying for the playoffs. Anything less is below the line regardless of the roster. Of course, a fully successful season is not achieved unless the last game of the playoffs is a victory. 2017 was particularly disappointing since that edition of the Steelers appeared to have all the weapons necessary to win it. The chances for another strong opportunity are dwindling as franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s career draws to a close. Plus; how long can we keep the other killer B’s and a talented offensive line together? The impact of losing Ryan Shazier on defense has made an average defense very weak. In addition to shoring up inside linebacker here are other things that must happen:

TJ Watt seemed to fade toward the end of the season. Although Bud Dupree had six sacks many observers believe he is underperforming. Both are young; Watt 23 and Dupree 25. These two need to take a leap in 2018. There has been a lot of talk about how some of the new assistants, especially Tom Bradley, will help with game planning. I am more interested in how well position coaches develop the young talent. I don’t know how good Joey Porter is at transferring the knowledge he has about the fundamentals of playing outside linebacker, but it needs to happen. Cheerleading and hanging out with players on the Southside will not cut it.

Speaking of Bradley; we heard all season about defensive secondary communication problems especially when it came to giving up big plays. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about it at the end of preseason and it came up again at the end of the regular season. The young secondary players: Artie Burns (22); Sean Davis (24); Mike Hilton (23) & Cam Sutton (22) need to show significant progress in coverage and tackling. Can Brian Allen (24) be developed? Retaining Joe Haden is a must in my opinion. Mike Mitchell may be needed for another year if he can keep his mouth shut outside the locker room. William Gay, JJ Wilcox, Coty Sensabaugh and Robert Golden need to be evaluated very early as to whether there is worth retaining them. I am depending on Bradley to sort through this mess and clean it up.

My least concern on defense is the defensive line. That said, I’d like to see if we can discern any impact by Karl Dunbar. I don’t buy that he will be the assistant to the assistant and John Mitchell will still be running the defensive line. It looks like a solid line with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave with Tyson Alualu backing them up. Dan McCullers never took that step forward and is probably gone; LT Walton should have another chance at making the roster. If anything; I’d like to see the starting three taking a few less snaps over the season so that they are fresher at the end. They were manhandled by Jacksonville’s offensive line.

The offense has less issues than the defense but there are some concerns that remain to this average fan. Ben Roethlisberger remains the indispensable player to me. He needs to perform, and the scheme should be one that he can operate under given that he now has an offensive coordinator that some say he handpicked. He is supposedly a Hall of Fame quarterback. I don’t want to hear that the quarterback sneak “is not in the playbook.” Ben needs to be accountable for the execution of the plays called; and for changing the play call at the line if it does not match the defense shown. The only bus on the Steelers should be Jerome Bettis – and no one is thrown under him unless it is Brian Urlacher.

The Steelers were blessed with a very healthy offensive line. I hope it stays that way and that they continue to provide Ben good protection. I wish the Steelers could keep Chris Hubbard but if that is not possible Jerald Hawkins; BJ Finney & Matt Feiler all must prove that they belong on the roster.

I’d like to see another year with Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble at tight end. Maybe a full year with the Steelers will give McDonald that opportunity to prove he could be a pro bowl caliber tight end. I was surprised that Jesse James is only 23 – still time for him to develop. I saw a lot of effort on his part to gain yards after the catch. With Roosevelt Nix signed for 4 years at fullback; there is no need for a 4th tight end.

Wide receiver should continue to be a strength of the Steelers especially if they hold onto Martavis Bryant. Darryl Drake and JuJu Smith-Schuster may be a great match. Can he help JuJu avoid a sophomore slump? Darrius Heyward-Bey might be a keeper if he can continue to perform on special teams. Not sure what will happen to Eli Rogers or Justin Hunter, but they are not irreplaceable. Oh yeah, then there is Antonio Brown. The talent is there; the question is will the offensive scheme make players wide open like we saw in the Super Bowl – Ben should not have to pass into tight spaces every passing down.

For the 2018 edition of the Steelers to come close to last year’s talent, Le’Veon Bell will need to be signed to a long-term contract or tagged. Last year, well-respected Steelers pundits strongly stated that Bell’s absence from training camp didn’t matter. He was a “professional” and that he would show up for the season in shape without having taken the “risk” of hurting himself during camp. Any drop-off in play would be both minimal and temporary. I respectfully disagree. I believe it did hurt the team. While Bell was certainly in shape; missing the team meetings when game plans are being discussed; practices when timing with the linemen and other offensive teammates is ingrained; not to mention the distraction must have had an impact. He put up some big numbers, but it appeared to me this was based more on volume of carries. He had almost a full yard per carry less in 2017 (4.0) than in 2016 (4.9). This year I expect him at all practices at reporting on time. Otherwise, his name will be changed to Di’Vaon.

Chris Boswell is a very strong kicker and Jordan Berry adequate as a punter. On special teams the return game needs improvement. I have not seen statistics, but it seemed like the Steelers were penalized less on special teams than in years past. Hope that is a continued trend and that the Steelers use the best punt and kick returners available – even if it is a starter. The field advantage provided by strong special team’s play is underappreciated.

The front office usually makes good decisions on draft and free agency needs. Not all the players picked up pan out; but enough nuggets of talent are found to make it one of the stronger front offices in the league. Kudos to Kevin Colbert. In addition to inside linebackers; help at safety; edge rusher; defensive line and maybe even running back are needed – we’ll see how James Conner bounces back from surgery, but he always seemed to be limping off the field after his running plays. I hope he does not prove to be too fragile.

I’ve always been a supporter of whomever Steelers had at head coach. Chuck Noll long after the magic of the 1970’s dynasty had left. Bill Cowher even after losing all those championship games and not winning a Lombardi after 13 seasons at the helm (he finally did it in his 14th and penultimate season as head coach). Now Mike Tomlin; though my patience wore thin this past season.

Some of the distractions, such as Antonio Brown throwing a Gatorade jug were minor and overblown. But having a former star player who should have been leading by example sleeping through position group meetings; a star running back missing all but 5 minutes of a pre-playoff game walk through practice – excused or otherwise; a player reportedly yelling outside an opponent’s locker room are distractions that necessarily should be managed by the coach. How much, if any, of that grade school nonsense is permitted to continue in 2018 I place right in coach Tomlin’s lap. I believe that John Mitchell’s role will be to help Tomlin instill better communications discipline and decrease the distractions and let Dunbar do his thing with the defensive line.

I also hold whomever the team leaders are. This is not limited to the captains; but every veteran on the team. They all need to set the tone. Unfortunately, veterans like James Harrison and Mike Mitchell were not held to account in 2017 – at least not publicly. One problem is gone. We will see if the other remains in 2018 and if so; is there a behavior adjustment. This team needs to be focused on the next game and that starts with the head coach setting the tone regardless of whatever elephants are in the room. I liked Art Rooney II’s post season comments on getting back to the one game at a time mentality.

“Time keeps on slipping into the future.” The players that are on the Steelers roster now only have so much to make it happen. If they stay focused on what they can control; avoid some intangibles like a rash of injuries; they just might be able to Fly Like an Eagle in 2018.

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