It’s 3rd and 6. Mason Rudolph drops back. He looks off Johnny Holton, pump fakes to Deon Cain, and fires short left, complete to Tevin Jones shy of the sticks for a five yard reception. Facing 4th and 1 on his own 37, Mike Tomlin gambles, handing off to Trey Edmunds, who plows through Bengals’ linebacker Nick Vigil for a two yard gain.
That’s a Pittsburgh Steelers….first down!
What I described to you is a very possible sequence that will take place Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Except, I suppose, the only exception being the fact i described a positive offensive moment, so maybe I took things a little too far.
This was not the cast of characters expected to lead Pittsburgh’s offense this year. But it’s the group they’re relying on, testing Tomlin’s tried and true “next man up” phrase.
The Steelers’ defense must remain the strength of the team. They don’t have a choice. In fact, they need to be better than just a strength. They need to be dominant, nearly perfect, playing at an elite level that not only keeps points off the scoreboard but creates short fields for the offense, or preferably, touchdowns, that keeps the offense nice and cozy on the bench.
This offense though? They have to do something. Anything. I’ll name my future son “Randy” if they can ever convert another 3rd and 1. I’m serious. My desperation knows no limits.
Who will embody being “next man up?” Then-no names have done it before. Matt Feiler was just the feel-good local story from Bloomsburg before solidifying the right tackle spot for Marcus Gilbert this year and again in a full-time role in 2019. Jesse James was always a snap away to becoming the #1 tight end, consistently doing his job. DeAngelo Williams once helped make Le’Veon Bell’s injuries slightly more palatable.
Which player, if any, will carry that torch? Benny Snell has a prime opportunity. James Conner almost certainly won’t play this weekend while Jaylen Samuels have flopped around in the backfield for far too long. Snell’s downhill, powerful style plays well with a run game that isn’t getting a push and a weak Bengals’ run defense, one that just allowed 112 yards to a similarly-built Josh Jacobs.
Receiver is even more interesting. Even assuming Diontae Johnson plays, and you never know with a rookie going through concussion protocol, JuJu Smith-Schuster is probably going to sit out. That leaves lots of playing time for James Washington, playing his best football the last month, Holton, Cain, and Jones.
It’s not about one of those guys making all the players. To expect so would be unrealistic and frankly, dangerous. Holton getting thrown to ten times a game won’t end well. But if one guy can make a play on third down, in the red zone, create one explosive play – this pass game is yearning for them – coupled with a defense that plays unreasonably well, that’s unfortunately become the expectation, the Steelers will have a chance in this playoff race.
That’ll require a next man up. I don’t care if it’s Billy sitting in Row 5, seat B, someone’s gotta make a play.