The strangest of all National Football League seasons begins its closing argument this weekend and for the first time since 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers will have something to say about it.
It’s the playoffs, Baby. Rock n’ roll. Dance and soul.
Whatever it took to get you in there, matters nothing now. It’s how you come out the other side.
Will you be shining up your golf clubs in a week or two, or will you be participating in all of the pre-Super Bowl hype that’s almost as big as the big game itself.
For Steelers fans, it’s a Steelers Nation divided with some cups half empty and some half full.
If your Lombardi Trophy is half empty, you can’t ignore the fact the Steelers running game has been running on empty in a way even Jackson Browne couldn’t put to words. You also would note this team has been more slip than slide the past couple of months and the best quarterback arm on the team may currently be Mason Rudolph.
But, if your Super Bowl aspirations are half full, you’ll cheerfully push all of your chips onto Number 7 on the roulette wheel figuring Ben Roethlisberger has been saving his best magic for when it matters most.
And this defense? Even the sourest of pessimists among us can’t avoid a glimmer of pride in the return to glory of Pittsburgh’s true measure of football greatness.
Do we have one of the best defenses in the NFL as well as some of the leagues’ brightest defensive stars?
Check. That’s a big Roger, Roger.
We’re still participating in games that matter in January?
We’re playing who?
That would be the Cleveland Browns.
Okay, then. Let’s get this show started. It’s time for your first playoff version of the Spin…in quite some time.
The Mason Jar
What did we learn about third year quarterback Mason Rudolph’s performance against the desperate and COVID depleted Browns last week?
A lot, actually. We saw a young guy who was ready to compete, much improved and showing signs of belonging in the big leagues.
He flashed some of the best throws of the year for a player in a Steelers uniform and he displayed strong leadership as well. This, while having to be protected by a quasi-practice squad offensive line.
Did we see the next great Steelers quarterback? Probably not. There was a striking lack of composure and creativity in the phone booth of a collapsed NFL pocket and in these moments…as in the past…he looked terminally average.
But, this was a significant move forward for Rudolph as potentially being the team’s number two for many years to come. And since that’s with the Steelers, it can be one of the most stable and sought-after positions in the league.
Not a bad gig if you can get it.
Most important for this year’s Big Dance, Steelers Nation can feel fifty times more comfortable in the playoffs if for any reason Rudolph needs to green up his shoes a little.
Lack Of Inspiration
For those of us who grew up without Madden Football in the 1970’s and were left with only an Official NFL Electric Football Game to play, we’ve got a pretty good visual of what the Steelers running game looks like.
It looks exactly like when one of those vibrating plastic players would get stuck against the sidewall. There was only one thing left for us 8-year old offensive coordinators to do, and that was to give the running back a wee poke of the finger so he could return on his task of buzzing along the gridiron with his tiny foam football tucked under his arm.
Our role on occasion was as “la mano de Dios” to use a phrase coined to describe recently departed soccer great Diego Maradona’s most controversial and memorable moment.
The problem with this Steelers running game is there doesn’t seem to be any finger poking from the sideline when it’s so desperately needed.
Perhaps most disappointing about the Cleveland game was how Josh Dobbs was used. I mean, Dobbs is not the back up wide receiver under center in the Wildcat. Why didn’t we let him throw the ball?
Dobbs in. It’s a run.
Rudolph is back. It’s a pass.
The lack of Zen on this offensive play calling is mind numbing. Every other team has some Yin to balance out the Yang.
Us? There is no guesswork. No ebb and flo. No beguiling.
Which is why I recommend for the playoffs that we replace Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner with a Magic 8-Ball.
One of the offensive linemen can carry it next to their towel. Big Ben can give it a shake in the huddle, and at least we’ll have some element of surprise with the 20 options in the team’s playbook.
The Devil’s Triangle
One of the highlights of the Browns game was the continuing resurgence of Chase Claypool.
Remember those days when we were told it would take two or three years of coaching before a receiver could be trusted with a starting role on a Steelers offense?
Claypool continues to be one of the Steelers greatest rookie receiving sensations…since…Juju Smith-Schuster was riding a bike.
Which is why it remains strange that right smack dab in the peak of the Steelers 11-0 run Claypool was relegated to more of a bench role for several games. That really seemed timed up with when the team’s offensive engine started pinging.
If Claypool gets single covered on the sideline, give him one of those “three flies up” tosses. There is a strong chance he’ll make a catch or draw a pass interference. And, can we run him on some post plays across the middle, please?
Complain all we want about this team’s ability to run block, the line has proven capable of holding a pocket for Big Ben. Even those times when he holds the rock longer than two seconds.
With passing options like Claypool, a hands-healed Diontae Johnson, social media mentor Smith-Schuster and the steady and reliable James Washington, this team needs to send missiles flying.
Forget about wasting snaps on running into brick walls. From here on out? It’s Air Coryell.
As much grief-splattered ink has been spilled (including here in the Spin) regarding the team’s offensive coaches, there has been an equally regretful void of praise for one of the team’s MVP’s.
Tom Bradley is the Mike Munchak of Steelers defensive coaches. Why isn’t he getting the accolades he deserves (as the Spin gives himself a hard look in the mirror).
Can you think of a single defensive back who hasn’t grown tremendously over the course of the time Bradley has spent with the team?
Certainly, the same can be said about Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar.
Much has been said about the caliber of players the team is set to lose in free agency during the offseason. Of equal concern is the coaching talent that could pilfered on the defensive side.
After all, we do know what happened when Munchak left.
2020 Draft Class
If we allow ourselves to cheat and consider Minkah Fitzpatrick as our number one draft pick this year, then we might be able to say this group of rookies constitutes Kevin Colbert’s greatest performance yet as the team’s general manager.
With Fitzpatrick earning his second All-Pro nod, and with him just barely turning 24, he’s on his way to being the next Rod Woodson-Troy Polamalu level player on the team. He just could beat all of the team’s interception records if he ends up permanently planting his career in the Steel City.
Then there is Claypool who is flashing greatness. Add to this Kevin Dotson, who is being hailed by his colleagues as a unique talent. Running back Anthony McFarland still seems too quick for his own good, but he’ll end up settling well into a quality third down option in the league.
Seventh rounder Carlos Davis has shown he’s got some…well…fight in him, and don’t sleep on Antoine Brooks, Jr. (sixth round) quite yet.
Am I forgetting someone? Nope. Just saving him for last.
Alex Highsmith is already much better than Bud Dupree. Not the Dupree of the past two years, who was sensational. But, the Dupree of his first three years with the team.
Remember when Colbert kept throwing first round picks at edge rushers like spaghetti on the wall?
No need to squander any of those much-needed offensive line picks on those anymore, Highsmith is the next great Steelers linebacker…already.
Yes…he’s got to get some gray in his sideburns, and needs work on securing the edge, but he’s looking like the perfect dance partner for T.J. Watt for…hopefully…many years to come.
The Browns Trilogy
So…here we go again. Another showdown with the Cleveland Browns.
This is no longer your “Winless In Ohio” team. These ain’t the Brownies anymore. When Baker Mayfield gets on a roll (and he’s currently WAY hotter than Big Ben these last few games) they can stand toe to toe with any team in the NFL.
The running game? Sigh. How is it the Browns have BOTH Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt? That’s a lot of riches.
And, they are gaining yards as a result of one of the best gap-creating and road grading offensive lines in the league.
If the Browns leave Heinz Field with their first playoff victory since…well, players had leather helmets…then it will be only a mild upset.
Don’t waste time with the crazy math of “well they beat us but we didn’t have all of our players.”
The Browns were missing key players last week as well, and none of that Calculus really matters in the playoffs anyway.
The Steelers defense can and will rise to the occasion, but they will be facing an offensive opponent formative enough that they won’t be able to do it this time alone.
The second half of the Indianapolis Colts version of Roethlisberger will need to be in attendance for this game. If first half Colts Ben shows up, all will be lost.
The offense will be required to compete the ENTIRE game. Yes, this includes the first quarter, Mr. Fichtner.
Special Teams will undoubtedly come into play, so they better be ready to be special.
But, what is most special, is that in a year of absolute madness, we were able to enjoy an entire regular season of the game we so love. Now, we get to wave our towels in support of the team that’s an integral part of who we are.
It’s NFL playoff football, Steelers fans. And, for the first time in a few years, we’ve got a ticket to ride.