It seemed like any hopes of another Super Bowl ring were long tossed away into the volcanic pools of the Mountain of Doom, but fear not, Steelers Nation, because the return of the king is upon us.
Like a ranger who had left us more than a decade ago, once again royalty was on the rise, to claim its rightful destiny.
Back on the throne, a place that never should have been allowed to be abandoned.
And now, all hope returns…all options are on the table. Including, a rise to the highest level of NFL glory this year.
Because the King has returned.
What? What’s that you say? Ben Roethlisberger?
No…that’s not what I meant. Of course, it’s great that Big Ben is back as well.
But, this is Pittsburgh, baby. We’re talking about the Steelers defense!
The King has returned once again.
And, under any coach, be it Coach Mike Tomlin, or the next to earn that honor in the decades ahead…never let the King leave again.
The D’s back in the Burgh. That’s what matters. So let’s get things Spinning.
Did We Mention THAT Defense Yet?
Sure. Forcing sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones to cough up a couple of key interceptions was huge. But, that was nothing compared to the performance by the Steelers run defense in the team’s 26-16 victory over the New York Giants. Saquon Barkley being held to only 6 yards on 15 carries? Phenomenal.
And, with as little room that he had to dance, it’s surprising he got that many yards. The run gaps were leak free and the penetration by the Steelers defensive line was beyond impressive. If this rush defense wasn’t a one-game mirage, then the Steelers can return to their glory days once again. Remember when teams didn’t even try to run against Pittsburgh? Back when NT Casey Hampton and his friends were immovable objects? That was the key to winning Super Bowls more than anything else.
Room For Improvement
That being said, this WAS a sophomore quarterback, who at times seemed to be able to pass his team down the field with ease. The Steelers have some elite quarterbacks and much stronger offensive lines to get past on their way to the Promise Land, so the pass defense is going to need to up its game. You take away the tipped interception by DT Cam Heyward in the endzone and this would have been a much different game.
There were so many stars on the defense against the Giants, but if you were going to choose one, you might just go with DT Tyson Alualu. He had big shoes to step into with the departure of Javon Hargraves to free agency, and the result was a middle of the line that looked more solid than it had for years. Hargraves’ strength was also his weakness in that sometimes his ability to get upfield would allow for run gaps to open. Not so with Alualu. Strange to say, but Alualu might end up being an upgrade at the position of nose tackle before the year is over.
Few other players have had to endure more friendly fire from Steelers Nation than LB Vince Williams through the years. And, not without some rationale as early on in his career he was exposed at times in pass coverage, and in other times performed below the level of game dominance this franchise expects out of its linebacking corps. But, through it all, Williams has proved to be the Man Of Steel in this exciting new release of the Steelers Defense. Over the past couple of years, Williams has reduced his deficiencies and has added some surprising splash to his game.
How is this happening? There are two players providing the assist. One is the space-devouring LB Devin Bush and the other is the gifted athlete and wise-beyond-his-years S Minkah Fitzpatrick. They have Williams’ back, big time, and now Vince can be Vince. Expect Williams to shock the league this year by reaching double digits in sacks and earning his way into the Pro Bowl. With his intense dedication to growing in his play and faithfulness to the team, few players would deserve the accolades more.
Getting Your JuJu Back
Who was happier to see Big Ben back on the field than JuJu Smith-Schuster? Last year was a season on the brink for the young, charismatic and talented receiver, and if his first game of this year is a harbinger of things to come, he’ll thrive as long as Big Ben is calling the audibles. However; there was one thing I noticed. He seemed to be letting his emotions get the best of him. Did anyone else notice his body language in response to play calls? Those slumping shoulders signaled consistently that he wasn’t the primary target on the call, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to notice. He might need to work on his poker face (and body) for the good of the offense.
Two Bell Cows Are Better Than One
It certainly was disheartening to see RB James Conner suffer another injury in the game. Clearly, no one is more disappointed than he is with getting nicked yet once again. But, it did open the door for RB Benny Snell to express himself with brilliance and to reveal some flashes of what could be a breakout year. The Steelers, through the years, have typically chosen one back and then have run them until “their wheels fall off”. Maybe it’s time for a committee approach, that won’t leave the team over-reliant on any one running back. After Snell’s performance, you hate to put him on the bench. Why not cut the rock in half this year?
The Front Office Film Reels
Certainly, there are at least a couple of the current Steelers offensive stars with their sights set on a big time free agency payoff at the end of the year. But, if their intention is to be loyal only to the highest bidder, they might be wise to take a look at the Ghosts Of Steelers Past. Antonio Brown? Le’Veon Bell? Mike Wallace? How is all of that Young Money looking now? The clear lesson is that if the Steelers call your name on draft day, your best play is to call it a career. The front office has the film to prove this point, and this might positively impact negotiations for years to come.
It was terrible to see jumbo T Zach Banner go down toward the end of the game with a season-ending knee injury. For those of us who have enjoyed his giant-sized personality and have followed his long, hard fought journey to starterdom, we were grieving with him as his tears flowed on the sideline. Football is a heartless sport when it comes to injuries and this was painful to witness. Yet, it’s time to celebrate advancements in medicine once again in that ACL tears are no longer career ending injuries. Zach will heal, and he won’t heal alone.
Rear View Mirror
Big Ben’s return was looking inauspicious in the first quarter as he looked as rusty as can be expected after being almost a year away from the game. Yet, after getting things into gear, what was most encouraging was something added to Roethlisberger’s game that has been missing for years. That is, putting the opposing team far in the rear view mirror. There was a moment in the game last week when it looked like the Steelers were going to stall on offense and allow the Giants to get back into the game. But, the defense remained strong and Big Ben put his squad into high gear. With this defense, the Steelers have no business ever taking the foot off the gas pedal on offense. In the modern NFL, you’ve got to keep scoring until the last whistle blows. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see this approach throughout the year.
Unity And Grace
It was a beautiful thing to experience football back once again. And, with all of the emotions surrounding such a difficult year for our nation and the world, it was great to see things as “normal” as they could be. For the most part, I think the Steelers handled the challenges of expressing their response to societal conflicts as well as possible, as everyone is getting immense pressure from all sides. I think the key for Steelers Nation to experience unity once again, is for each of us to extend to each other a little grace. These are difficult times to find cheer. Which is why it’s so powerful when we rise and cheer together.
Less Than A Mile
The Steelers have not played particularly well in Denver. The Tim Tebow playoff performance still haunts Steelers Nation like it was just last week. Fortunately, this game won’t be played a mile high, but instead in the comfortable (albeit empty seated) confines of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although the Steelers offensive line is a shaky proposition with all of its injuries, look to the defense to carry the day once again, and for any stray wild horses to be corralled.
And, what matters most, to any full-throttled, long-traveled Steelers fan, is that the King has returned. Long live the King.