Is it time to buy a new phone Steelers Nation? Or does that red battery icon merely indicate this team is in need of a re-charge?
This question will be at least partially answered Sunday evening by the Los Angeles Chargers and Philip Rivers, who is the last man standing from the storied quarterback draft class of 2004.
There is no truth to the rumors, by the way, that the only receiver he brought with him is Keenan Allen, who single handedly dismantled last year’s version of the Steelers defense, with its brilliant game plan of backers on wideouts.
By typical laws of science, the Baltimore Ravens should have put the last nail in the coffin with their 26-23 away win over the Steelers. But the AFC North division of the National Football League has morphed into The Walking Dead, with the lumbering corpses of the Cincinnati and Cleveland inexplicably joining Pittsburgh as still in the hunt.
And, speaking of the insatiable desire for fresh brains, what the heck was Jaylen Samuels doing tossing that lollipop from deep in Steelers territory last weekend? That was scripted? That Shakespeare who wrote it needs to go.
But let’s stay focused, Steelers fans. When you’re 1-4 with a third string quarterback you can’t be looking in the rear view mirror.
Let’s re-charge ahead, my friends. There is an evening game in the City of Lights to see if we can get our Mojo Rising.
Time to give this baby a Spin.
Give Me That Wheel
The moment Ben Roethlisberger grabbed his elbow in the second game of the season, it signaled the final snuffing of an era for the once ballyhooed, perennially pipe-dreamed Steelers offense. The sad truth is between untimely injuries, greed-induced holdouts and season long temper tantrums this squad never did reach its celestial potential.
It’s painful to recall this team once being an odds-on-favorite to surpass the reputations of all-time offenses like the Greatest Show On Turf or Air Coryell. Since that time, the great offensive stars of this false prophecy have either fallen from the skies or lost their shine.
But, no crying offer spilled milk or ketchup bottles Steelers Nation. Out with the old delusions and in with the new.
With a third string quarterback in Devin Hodges filling in for the fresh-out-of-the-shrink-wrap Mason Rudolph, the training wheels will be bolted firmly on this offense’s bicycle for some time to come.
It’s safe to now proclaim the defense as the lead dog on this team, and there is enough youthful, irrational exuberance to believe they could work their way to the top of the NFL charts.
Maybe having your defense be stronger than your offense would be bad news for fans of other teams, but for Pittsburgh, it merely means the planets are finally back in alignment.
Let’s hope the “D” never plays second fiddle in Pittsburgh ever again as that was several years of a completely unbearable out-of-tune cacophony.
The Ghost In The Machine
This Steelers defense is beginning to flash the look and the feel of a champion, and my goodness it should after such an overinflated investment in high draft picks and acquisitions.
With his long time served as a linebackers coach shining through, Keith Butler certainly deserves credit for his unit’s ability to put pressure on the quarterback. His defenses have been doing this since he took over the defensive head coach headset a few years back.
And significantly, it appears they have finally learned this season how to convert this pressure into game-changing turnovers. The addition of players like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steven Nelson and even rapidly developing Devin Bush have made a tremendous difference.
So what gives? Why isn’t this team winning? Former head coach Bill Cowher used to pile up victories with a dominant defense and a “meh” offense for years. Why can’t Mike Tomlin and Butler?
The answer is Cowher’s defenses knew how to close out games and this is a knowledge that retired with Troy Polamalu. Tomlin has had no answers of his own since he had to start cooking with his own groceries.
Back in the day, Cowher’s squads could take the air out of the game like none other. Give his defense a few blades of grass in the fourth quarter and they would turn that into gridiron glory.
Unfortunately, for years now under Tomlin, no lead has been safe with the Steelers.
This unfortunate truth was on display again after an over-achieving Hodges and a spunky offense responded to the Rudolph concussion incident by handing over the defense a lead with just minutes left in the Ravens game.
Yes. There was a terrible roughing the passer call, but Cowher’s defenses didn’t bother to complain about bad calls, they would just overcome them. Instead, last Sunday, the Steelers defense did something unforgivable, and that was to allow the Ravens’ kicker Justin Tucker to trot out onto the field. That’s been a death march for the Steelers since that guy first put on a purple jersey.
The bottom line. Bad breaks or not, the Steelers defense needs to win those games. And, not just once in a while. All of the time.
That’s the old Steelers defense. It’s time for it to be the new Steelers defense as well.
What’s A Guy Got To Do?
Any reasonable assessment of Mason Rudolph’s debuting games as the Steelers quarterback should be receiving absolute rave reviews.
His off-the-charts completion percentage, pin-point accuracy and overall grace under pressure has been extraordinary over the past couple of games.
The bravery, vision and composure he displayed on his final, concussion-inducing pass against the physical Ravens was big time, big league.
Remarkably, many Steelers fans are belittling his achievements by pointing to the length of his passes and are dismissing his performance as merely game management.
Keep in mind that Rudolph has been working with the same set of receivers that made Big Ben look pedestrian before he went down with injury.
To have that high of a completion percentage with a set of receivers who aren’t really getting all that open, is a testament to his promise and potential.
In many ways, Rudolph’s early showing has outshined those first games of Big Ben’s rookie year.
No, he hasn’t displayed the same magnificent arm or electrifying escapism of his Hall Of Fame predecessor, but he also didn’t have the incredible advantage of being able to ride the Bus.
Rudolph has a chip on his shoulder for not being drafted in the first round and it’s looking more and more as if he’s got a reason to feel snubbed.
Once the fog has been lifted following his frightening hit, he’ll be back building that case.
Embrace your next franchise quarterback, Steelers Nation. He has arrived.
And that Hodges kid ain’t bad neither.
Cute Little Kitty
Hopefully the Wildcat offense expended all nine of its lives against the Ravens. The decision to have Samuels throw a pass early in the game was one of the boldest displays of coaching ineptitude this staff has showcased this year, and that’s with the acknowledgement we’re picking from of a barrel full of fish.
When it worked with mild success during the Cincinnati Bengals game, I cringed at the positive response it received from Steelers fans and announcers and thought, “Please don’t feed the bears.”
Sure enough if those signs of encouragement didn’t further inspire the coaching staff’s deep delusion they had come up with some kind of novel idea on offense.
If ever there was a time that Art Rooney II should have immediately descended the elevator and demanded the car keys from Randy Fichtner, that was it.
Daniel Snyder To The Rescue
If the Washington Redskins were actually seriously inquiring about the availability of Mike Tomlin for their next head coach, Rooney’s only reasonable reply should have been, “Would you like some fries with your order?”
He has a few other coaches he could throw in as a combo pack.
This isn’t because Mike Tomlin isn’t worth a number one or number two draft pick. He most certainly is and with a fresh start he could ascend the ranks again.
It’s just that the Steelers can’t find a new vision with the same set of eyes, and they can’t rebuild without high draft picks.
The grievous and franchise crippling error of the Steelers front office wasn’t that they lost Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.
It was that they didn’t trade them away when these players had premium market value.
But This May Surprise You
I like this team. A lot. I enjoy watching them play.
They fight hard. They flash excellence. They are full of youthful talent. And, they are of high character and easy to root for.
None of the players have received headlines for the wrong reasons and they appear to lack the selfishness of so many coddled Steelers stars of the recent past.
There is a strong core of quality talent on this team. Don’t think there isn’t.
If you’re willing to mix in a dose of cold, hard reality, there is something to behold here.
This is not a Super Bowl favorite as it was at the beginning of the season. And now this team isn’t really a remote contender.
Pittsburgh is not only rebuilding, it’s in a major transitional phase of the team’s history.
There. We’ve said it. Now you can relax and enjoy the games.
Yes, the swagger is nowhere to be seen and don’t expect them riding that horse in on the horizon anytime soon.
But, the thrill is not gone. The phone is not dead. It just needs a good, long re-charge.