The Pittsburgh Steelers gave the people what they wanted with a 36-10 trouncing of the Cincinnati Bengals, a shakedown so complete the visiting team had to leave town stripeless.
“I’ve never been so calm for a Steelers game,” was the general sentiment across Steelers Nation.
And, after so many games coming down to the final sands in the glass this season, it was a welcome relief to be so comfortably numb.
Most importantly it brings the team to the Number 9. The title of the Beatles worst song ever published, the shirt choice of soccer strikers throughout the world, and coincidentally, the uniform number of Joe Burrow, the young gun who was pressured into shooting blanks last Sunday at Heinz Field.
Can you believe it? Can you feel it?
The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers are in rarified air in their continuing ascent toward the pinnacle of the Mount Everest of National Football League accomplishments.
A perfect record. A perfect season. A Super Bowl trophy.
They’ve already climbed higher, and accomplished more thus far, in terms of starting records than any other team in Steeler’s history.
For those young fans, weary of having to incessantly hear of the glory days of the 70’s, this year’s team can take them to a place their Father’s teams could only dream of.
The air is thin. The ice is getting thicker. There’s a chilling breeze growing, the storm clouds are rising and the peak grows larger before our eyes with each step forward.
Next up? The Jacksonville Jaguars. So, packs on, let’s boot up and give it a Spin.
Make No Mistake
After a pedestrian effort against the Dallas Cowboys a week prior, the well-chided Steelers defense came ready to re-establish their position of preeminence in the league.
Yes, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is a rookie. But, he’s a number one overall pick rookie, and in prior games already had been flashing signs of future greatness.
All of the hype didn’t matter to the Steelers, though, who made sure the only passes Burrow were completing on a consistent basis was the baton to his team’s punter.
What The Receiving Corps Is Lacking
The wide receivers team for the Pittsburgh Steelers features JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington…with an occasional splash of Ray-Ray McCloud. You add Eric Ebron to the mix and collectively there is an affluence of potential and talent.
Yet, what is clearly lacking from the group is the drama queening that usually accompanies the position.
This is unique to NFL rosters, and is certainly a refreshing break from what pass catching receivers have been dishing up for the Steelers in recent years.
They are far from perfect. Dropped passes. Missed routes. There are certainly those.
But, this receiving unit, under the leadership of Smith-Schuster is slowly starting to elevate itself as a rising strength for the team.
Best of all. Big plays and critical catches are being served…drama free.
For many years, training camp obsessing fans were rooting for safety Jordan Dangerfield to make the team’s final 53.
It was just a matter of justice.
No one seemed to try harder to impress in the limited reps he would get in preseason. And every summer, he was the guy in the secondary delivering the big hits.
This is why it brings many of us great joy to see him playing such a significant role in special teams for the Steelers. He’s now Special Teams Captain and he’s never hard to spot out on the field.
He’s either laying out returners or celebrating wildly when his teammates manage to handle the task themselves.
As an undrafted player out of Towson University, who didn’t have world class speed on his resume, he was always an underdog to make the team. Now, he’s just shy of 30 years old, and performing at the peak of his career.
For football purists who enjoy the fine details of a championship grade squad, Dangerfield is as big of a success story as anyone on the roster.
The Jacksonville Jaguars don’t draw many headlines now in the league, except for those of head coaches wondering if they’ll be able to keep their jobs.
But, there were some serious glory days for the Jaguars in their franchise’s relatively young history, and those often came at the Steelers expense.
The Jaguars entered as an expansion team in 1995 along with the Carolina Panthers and because of some generous rules at the time, they were able to capitalize on favored draft positioning and crafty cherry picking off of competing rosters.
By 1998, they were atop the AFC Central (the Steelers division at the time) and followed this up the next year with a 14-2 regular season record, before losing to the Tennessee Titans (also in the AFC Central) in the AFC Championship.
Needless to say, Steelers fans were more than pleased to learn both the Jaguars and Titans were exiting the AFC Central to be part of the newly formed AFC South that upcoming year.
Jacksonville was led by a left-handed mobile quarterback by the name of Mark Brunell with a running game fueled by a talented young back by the name of Fred Taylor.
The wide receiver group was formidable headed up by one of the league’s best in Jimmy Smith and a productive number two in Keenan McCardell.
Yet, it was the offensive line who were the real stars anchored by perennial All-Pro and future Hall of Famer left tackle Tony Boselli, who was of the most dominant to ever to play the game at his position.
The defense? Yeah, they were good as well.
We used to hate going to Jacksonville to play. In fact it took the Steelers six attempts before they won their first game in those tropical climes.
So…if you’re wondering why some of us are lacking confidence this weekend, just know there’s a lot of unpleasant history we’re still grappling with.
Running On Empty
The most positive part of the Steelers offense this year is their latent potential. They really could, and many would say should, be performing at a much higher level.
Even with the blowout win last Sunday, the offense sputtered to get rolling in the first quarter, and it wasn’t until the squad shifted to a pass heavy sequence before they were able to start lighting up the board.
Of great concern, is the recent inability of the offense to get any traction on the ground. This is despite facing two of the league’s most porous run defenses in the Cowboys and Bengals.
And, as they are wont to say in Westeros…Winter is coming.
With such a talented offensive line, and a more than capable back in James Conner, it’s clear that it’s coming down to a failing scheme.
Whether it’s the play calling of Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner or the direction of Offensive Line Coach Shaun Sarrett, there is definitely something amiss.
The Empty Set
Did the statement of “talented offensive line” cause you to choke on the froth of your Iron City?
Many are pointing to the aging and fading skills of center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro as the reason Pittsburgh can’t run any more, but the statistics would prove otherwise.
If the storied center and guard were struggling so much, and they weren’t receiving sufficient support from players like Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor than you would see a complete collapse across all plays.
Yet, the Steelers offensive line is only giving up an average of just over one quarterback sack a game, placing them as the second best in the league in this category.
What’s remarkable, is they are often protecting Big Ben from an empty set.
No. The talent’s there. It’s just the Steelers formations aren’t disguising the play calling and defenses aren’t being fooled by those wearing headsets on the sidelines.
NFL playoff history is cruel to those teams who can’t provide a balanced attack when the snow arrives.
There is no way around it. The running game is broken down at the side of the road and if it’s not fixed soon, it will certainly lead to the end of the road.
Hard To Swallow
When the Steelers players are feeling disrespected, they are quick to point to their perfect record in the win column.
Shortly after that, you’ll hear this popular refrain: “Do you know how hard it is to win nine games in a row in the NFL?”
This is true. You need to be legitimately good to accomplish feat.
It’s also true that it’s difficult to lose eight games in a row in the NFL. To do this, you need to be legitimately bad.
There would be no sugar coating a loss in Jacksonville this Sunday. It would be a major upset.
The dominating play against a weak Bengals team can’t be an outlier. The Steelers need to keep steam rolling inferior competition, and that means taking out Jacksonville in a distinctive fashion.
If they lose and end their winning streak? Well…for the Steelers that would be a Jaguar Little Pill to swallow.