The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2019 season was billed by many as an experiment about team versus individual greatness, one season removed from the departures of two superstar offensive talents in wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.
Of course, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury sidetracked everything, but the fact that they even managed to go 8-8 without him—and with other notable injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, for example—did say something about the camaraderie argument. And about having a great defense.
Given the Steelers’ 4-0 start this year and the fact that Brown and Bell are now on the streets, I thought head coach Mike Tomlin’s remarks during his pre-game press conference were illuminating in that regard. He was asked about what goes into creating a team that lifts itself up (as opposed to tearing itself down).
“There’s a scarcity of talent in this thing, particularly at this level, and you have to have the horses to run. It starts with talent, but it also takes a certain selflessness and a certain team mindset that allows you to rise up in the face of adversity, particularly adversity that wasn’t created directly by you that allows you to uplift those around you”, he said in response to that question.
“That’s what makes football the ultimate team game”, Tomlin continued in his answer, “and that’s what makes this process of growth and development and meeting the challenges of the journey every week, challenging and rewarding”.
There is a big difference between the manner in which Brown and Bell handled being the leaders of their respective position groups and the approaches that Smith-Schuster and Conner have taken. The latter have certainly been more welcoming and more open to sharing the load and celebrating the success of others.
Sure, Bell was happy to cheer Conner on in 2018 when he was sitting on his couch watching his team play from home. But he likes to complain about not getting enough touches when teams try to lighten his load. And then he likes to complain about being overworked when they don’t.
At least for the time being, it seems as though this is a more selfless roster than the Steelers have had in many years. I don’t know how much of it is a mere coincidence that that has translated into a 4-0 start. They certainly had an easy starting schedule, so that was an obvious factor. The next three games will be telling.
Some adversity will also be telling when it comes to that selflessness. Who is still content with their workload if the Steelers start losing and they’re only getting four targets per game or 10 rushes? It’s better to just keep winning and not have to find out.