Are you ready for some football? Ready? How about, “What took you so long?”
It seems like way too long ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers were performing bad comedy on the National Football League stage with a humiliating, virtually unwatchable debacle that started off with an impossibly poor snap over a quarterback’s head and ended with a year of getting heckled by…cough…cough…Cleveland Browns fans.
Since then, we endured watching Tom Brady reruns splattered across our television screens and mobile phones like one of those horror films that feature either a sinister looking clown or some guy sporting a hockey mask.
There was some minor healing for Steelers Nation as a promising draft unfurled. Certainly, there was great encouragement from so many Steelers making it into the Hall Of Fame.
For many of us old-timers, seeing Donnie Shell finally get his due and Bill Nunn receiving the credit he deserves were highlights of this year’s Canton festivities.
Yet, as the fresh, not even out of the cellophane wrapping of the 2021 season is upon us, we are left with some lingering questions.
Will this be a year of “Here We Go Steelers”, with a triumphant, and rather underdogging journey to Super Bowl glory?
Or will this be another season of “Here We Go Steelers…Again”, where we’re baited and switched by regular season fireworks…only to have our playoff hopes fizzle out again in the early rounds.
The Steelers Way is a Regular Season Winning Way under Coach Mike Tomlin, but he’s also been on a Championship-less run since Ben Roethlisberger was outgunned by Aaron Rodgers in Super Bowl XLV (that’s 45 for those of you who don’t speak Roman).
Tomlin has only won a solitary Super Bowl since his Steelers coaching career began and that victory was in 2009 when James Harrison flashed his inner-Usain Bolt in a most improbable 100-yard-dash. That will be 13 years ago come next February.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve aged quite a bit since then, and I’m growing more curmudgeonly about this drought by the year.
Meanwhile, following our defeat to the Cheese Heads, Tom Brady has racked up four Lombardi trophies, and with two different teams.
He even managed to do it with a head coach the Steelers brass supposedly sent into retirement some ten years ago.
To be fair, it’s been as much Big Ben’s shortcomings in the big games as it’s been Tomlin’s leadership failings. The two have been joined at the hip for this journey.
The key question is, will this be the breakthrough year for both quarterback and coach? Before the tea leaves settle into their Fall colors, let’s give this a Spin.
What Did The Preseason Teach Us?
For one, the preseason taught us not to spend too much money on tickets for the last game of the practice rounds. The 9-34 drubbing by the Carolina Panthers was embarrassing even by meaningless game standards.
At that level of performance, even Bishop Sycamore High School could have given us a fair match.
If there was a positive angle to this game, it was that most of the players wearing Steelers jerseys made it quite easy for coaches to say, “Goodbye” without having a lot of “splainin’” to do. The evidence on the tape was irrefutable.
How about the first three wins for the Steelers during the preseason? Well…the Ones didn’t play all that well against the opposing Ones, although admittedly the test sample was small.
It was encouraging during those games that the deeper fathoms of the Steelers roster made admirable comebacks…but then again, the fourth game erased most of that happiness.
So…call it inconclusive as far as revealing depth of talent on the squad.
The best glimmer of hope was Big Ben’s cameo appearance against the Detroit Lions in game three. The offense became almost immediately impressive with the grown-ups on the field.
All in all. It’s preseason. You’ll typically see what you want to see.
What mattered most, was that unlike last Summer, preseason playing time was made available for young players. There is that.
The Young And The Restless
Speaking of young players, this is not your grandfather’s offense anymore. Well…maybe it is, if you consider Ben Roethlisberger to be playing the role of Father Time among the green sprouts.
You’d be forgiven if you missed the transformation this offseason, but the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is now a picture of youth. Outside of 39-year-old Big Ben, there isn’t another offensive player on the roster who is 30 years or older.
This is remarkable considering this was an offense anchored by one of the oldest offensive lines in the NFL not all that long ago.
How much will the retiring experience and wisdom of players like Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro be missed? And, was the Steelers choice to let Alejandro Villanueva go to the Baltimore Ravens be one to cause deep regret and Big Ben blindsides this year?
It’s hard to tell yet, because during the preseason, defenses tend to be pretty Vanilla Ice when it comes to the lack of displaying complex blitzes and twists and stunts. But, so far…well…pretty good.
No, the new kids on the block haven’t been dominating, or even performing at a high level of competency thus far…but it hasn’t looked to be as disastrous as it could have been.
It was just a decade ago or so when Pittsburgh went through a cycle of really poor offensive line play. We know what terrible looks like.
Last year, we were wondering why the once proud offensive line couldn’t open any holes even if they were handed plastic bags. The wholesale exchange of players on the line, certainly affirms that those once elite players were struggling with career-limiting injuries and wear.
This year’s version of the offensive line may be spotty in performance and will probably cause premature wrinkling and hair loss for fans, but the addition of healthy, powerful bodies might be all this team needs to get the running game climbing back up the rankings.
The Backup Plan
All that said, there is a considerable strategic need when playing such a young, inexperienced offensive line.
We don’t want to jinx you Ben Roethlisberger, but make sure you mentor those back-up quarterbacks as much as you can. They might be playing more than we would have hoped.
Which brings us to the quarterback backups battle, one that was fairly well contested this Summer, at least in the fantasy football minds of fans.
Clearly the team is going to put its continued faith and devotion in Mason Rudolph as the number two in Black and Gold.
How did Rudolph perform in preseason?
By the numbers, he typically is going to shine. His stats are usually healthy, and it must be said he looked comfortable and confident in the huddle.
Whenever he is on the field, he does look like a player trying to show he’s an NFL caliber player. The troubling question is this: Is he actually trying to score touchdowns?
He continues to lack the next gear that quality quarterbacks have. That is, to be capable of providing the team with touchdowns, whenever they are needed.
That’s his next major step. Can he do it?
The big hope was that Dwayne Haskins would sweep into camp, after being picked up on the bargain basement shelf, and show he was not only capable of being this year’s main backup, but that he could possibly be the team’s quarterback of the future.
Haskins fell short on both accounts. But, he flashed in many ways. He possesses supreme raw talent and perhaps will be able to weave together both potential and performance with a year as a Steelers understudy.
The Forgotten Man
Speaking of potential, you know who has one of the largest opportunities to make a splash on the offense this year?
Well…yes, there’s that rookie Najee Harris. He’ll make a difference.
But, don’t undervalue the importance of the Juju Smith-Schuster signing. For those who thought for sure he would leave for Tik-Tok friendlier pastures of big city lights in New York or Los Angeles, Juju surprised many of us again by tapping his ruby slippers and saying, “There’s no place like home…in Pittsburgh.”
Don’t forget that Smith-Schuster is just a year removed away from being All-World in the NFL by many measures. With a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada who hopefully will see the value of Juju running patterns longer than five yards, he could be making headlines for standing in the end zone, rather than standing on crates.
This is not even down-grading the value he brings to the team in wide receiver toughness and blocking ability. By the end of the year, he could end up being the league’s best inside man.
You heard it hear. You’ll be hearing a lot of buzz about Juju this season. Don’t forget, he’s only 24.
The Kids Are Alright
The Steelers are not just young on offense (outside of the Bearded One), they are getting younger on defense as well. Sure, there are some grizzled veterans, but the brightest stars of now and the future are youngsters like T.J. Watt (26), Minkah Fitzpatrick (24) and Alex Highsmith (24).
These are the young versions of Rod Woodsons and Troy Polamalus.
When you look at the amount of young players who are making an impact on the Steelers roster, and who will be doing so for quite some time, you only have to look at Kevin Colbert’s and Mike Tomlin’s tri-fecta of recent excellent drafts.
In bold, you’ll see the players who are on the current 53 (or in McFarland’s case, on the injured reserve list). Even players like Quincy Roche and Antoine Brooks, Jr. were scooped up by other teams when there wasn’t room for them here in Pittsburgh.
|1 – Najee Harris||2 – Chase Claypool||1 – Devin Bush|
|2 – Pat Freiermuth||3 – Alex Highsmith||3 – Diontae Johnson|
|3 – Kendrick Green||4 – Anthony McFarland, Jr.||3 – Justin Layne|
|4 – Dan Moore Jr.||4 – Kevin Dotson||4 – Benny Snell, Jr.|
|4 – Buddy Johnson||6 – Antoine Brooks, Jr.||5 – Zach Gentry|
|5 – Isaiahh Loudermilk||7 – Carlos Davis||6 – Sutton Smith|
|6 – Quincy Roche||6 – Isaiah Buggs|
|7 – Tre Norwood||6 – Ulysees Gilbert III|
|7 – Pressley Harvin III||7 – Derwin Gray|
Yes, there are some REALLY advanced-in-age players, like Big Ben, and older key competitors. Certainly, Cameron Heyward (32), Tyson Alualu (34) and Joe Haden (32) come to mind.
But, make no mistake about it. The youth movement is afoot in Pittsburgh. The next great generational foundation of Steelers players is forming before our eyes.
Perhaps the most critical development of the past three years is this: Steelers Football is back.
After a not brief enough hiatus…as we suffered through Hollywood offensive stars seeking out mega-deals for years…we’re back to the Blue Collar basics here in the Burgh.
We’ve got a defense. And, potentially the league’s best.
And regardless of the youthful dalliances of our offensive line, there is now push instead of getting pushed around in the trenches. We’ve also got the next, great running back named Harris in town.
A defense? A running game?
Are we ready for football in Pittsburgh? You bet.