After the Pittsburgh Steelers rather surprising and highly impressive dispatchment of the Buffalo Bills a couple of weeks ago, there was a much-heightened feeling of self-worth across the Burgh.
Even the National Football League illuminati were mumbling disconcertingly among themselves.
Maybe this team is better than we prognosticated.
So, no one could fault Coach Mike Tomlin when in an act of head coaching chivalry, he opted to roll out the Junior Varsity squad against the Las Vegas Raiders last Sunday.
Wait. *Puts hand to earset.* I’m being told that was not the JV, but rather the VARSITY that the Steelers put out on the field. Are you sure?
Well…if that’s the case, then there is one question that must be answered before we go any further with this analysis and impending diatribe.
What the heck?
As in, What was that display of defensive ineptitude we just witnessed?
There were several well-spoken, highly revered and some would even say…beloved…Steelers columnists (well…at least one) who just one week prior had declared this Pittsburgh defense to be the best in the National Football League.
And then some quarterback…*checks notes*…named Derek Carr, throws for 382 yards and two touchdowns against this supposed top tier defense as if he was throwing darts at balloons at the County Fair.
I was in a bar watching this debacle unfold amongst a cluster of Steelers Nation brethren and sistren when I could no longer hold back an anguished scream of “This is Derek Carr for goodness sake!”
After the game was finished, a lonely, beer rattled Raiders fan came up to me, his eyes bulging with glee and said, “You were wrong! Derek is a very, very good quarterback.”
Oh yeah? Then why is their coach, “Chucky” Jon Gruden, always trying to trade him away for a sixth rounder and a case of Coors Light?
Maybe this loss to the Raiders wasn’t as feverishly discouraging as it felt.
Perhaps the Steelers opening day win over the Bills was a mirage of glory. Could it be the Bills aren’t as good as people expected them to be?
Well, that was a possibility, until the Bills disproved this thesis by dismantling the Miami Dolphins by a score of 35-0. No. The Bills are that good. Which means the Steelers opening day victory was that significant.
So, why oh why could have the Steelers suffered from such a letdown again against the Raiders on their own home turf at Heinz Field?
Is this Steelers defense great…or not so much?
A critical opportunity to surface clues to this mystery comes soon enough with Sunday’s game against division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals. So, let’s give it a Spin.
After a tough loss like last Sunday’s, I’m not sure which makes me more nauseous. Those fans who want Ben Roethlisberger released on waivers after every errant throw. Or Ben’s cloying fantasia groupies who consider it an abomination and outright treachery if you dare see their Emperor as ever being shy of an article of clothing.
Let’s be clear. Big Ben is one of the greatest Steelers of all time. He’s broken…nay shattered…almost every team record in passing. He’s provided a generation of thrills to Steelers Nation and for many of us, the film reels of his finest moments, brought to us some of our greatest moments of joy.
We are grateful.
But, truth telling time. Ben has never walked on the surface waters of the confluence of the Allegheny River and Monongahela River, and his feet are getting heavier every year.
Fox Sports Radio personality Colin Cowherd is persona non-grata to most in Steelers Nation because of his rants against Pittsburgh’s storied organization and due to his often-stated position regarding Big Ben’s commitment to the game that is summed up by this:
“Ben is Ben.”
Cowherd has often railed against his interpretation of Ben’s approach to the offseason, which he would describe as one of apathy and disinterest. He believes the Steelers have put themselves in an unenviable situation on putting their hopes on the shoulders of a rapidly fading talent, with no succession plan in sight.
This much is inarguably true. Franchise quarterbacks don’t exactly grow on trees. And just like trees, they take a long time to grow and develop.
If you’ve been following Cowherd for a long time you’ll know he is a Steelers fan at heart, despite needing to be mostly heartless in his line of duty.
If you’ve been reading the Spin long enough, you know that he and I don’t disagree too much on this subject.
Seven years ago or so, Ben was at the crossroads of his career. He could either choose to continue in his, “tell me when the games starts” approach to his playing style or choose to put every ounce of his being into producing the absolute maximum levels of his potential for greatness.
Ben chose to continue to use his offseasons…well, for offness. And, that’s fine. Hey, if you can draw tens of millions of dollars while only working hard for a half a year, then go for it.
Babe Ruth had a pretty solid career, and he didn’t launch the TB12 training program or any such derivative.
Yet, it was at that crossroad for Roethlisberger where his contemporary quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees distanced themselves from Big Ben with their extraordinary work ethics and unrelenting focus on being masters of the game. He’s not in their league and hasn’t been for years.
It’s a career decision he made, and one he seems content to have made.
With Brady and Brees, and to some extent still, Aaron Rodgers, they could at will produce first downs and touchdowns when they were needed most.
There is an exciting new crop of quarterbacks in the league, Patrick Mahomes lead among them, who also can do this now with dynamic running ability and springy young arms.
That’s just not Ben anymore. Sometimes he’ll pull it off. And, other times, he won’t. The magic wand no longer exists.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Coach Mike Tomlin. He had a choice of trusting Ben to get just a few yards to convert a critical fourth down in the fourth quarter
Instead, Tomlin made a remarkable and highly revealing choice to march out Chris Boswell to attempt the longest field goal in Heinz Field history.
Think about that. It speaks volumes and volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Sure. You can blame the young offensive line for Ben’s struggles if you want to. Or the young receivers running poor routes. If it makes you feel better.
You can despise Cowherd all you want, but he’s right. At this point in his career, Ben is Ben.
For those of us who remain massive fans of Number Seven, this is no disparagement of his storied career or ingratitude for all of the thrills he’s delivered.
It’s just like all of us who get older and fade a little as we head to the sunset, the Emperor’s clothes are more tattered, and a tad more revealing than they once were. That’s life.
Which leads us to this next truth.
If this Steelers defense doesn’t end up being among the very best in the league, then this season will be heading into the sunset much sooner than we would have ever dreamed.
Ben can’t carry this team on his shoulders anymore. Ben is now Ben.
Which was the real Steelers defense? The one that played against the Bills? Or the abysmal one that played against the Raiders?
The hope of this season rests on the answer to that question.
Help A Brother
There was tremendous outrage among Steelers offensive linemen past and present when footage revealed that Ben had to pick himself up from the ground after being pounded to the dirt by the rather unpleasant defensive linemen of the Las Vegas Raiders.
Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and/or Alejandro Villanueva would have NEVER left Big Ben to peel himself off of the turf all by himself with such lonely indignity.
This is all true, and I hope the young offensive linemen have learned their lesson following the collective righteous indignation by all of the team’s players, fans and alumni.
You can be certain the next time Big Ben tumbles to the tundra he’ll be greeted by ten pairs of outstretched hands.
But please, big men. In all of this fracas, let’s not lose the plot here. Let’s not forget the most important role of offensive linemen on this team.
That is to keep your quarterback from getting pounded to the ground in the first place.
That should be the real lesson. That should be drawing the most attention.
Najee Favorite Draft Pick?
One of the early season disappointments experienced by and opined about vociferously by Steelers fans is the lack of a solid running game.
So far, the number of hashmarks being crossed by first round draft pick Najee Harris remain rather uninspiring.
In fact, many are already arguing that the first round pick should have been spent much more wisely…like say on a jumbo left tackle.
But, this is where so many would be wrong. Plain wrong.
Harris has been everything and more that coaches and Steelers Nation could have hoped for. He’s already displayed pockets of brilliance in the early moments of his career and is brightly hinting that he will be a difference maker for the team for many more years to come.
Nothing will turn a running game around more…than a top-flight running back, and Harris is this and so much more.
The offensive line is neither overmatched nor overwhelmed. They are just greener than the green, green grass of Ireland. They will need some rotations around the sun and more first-hand experiences of competing against the finest pass rushers and most powerful trench warriors in the world.
Such is life in the NFL.
This year’s draft class remain bright stars across the board, and they are headlined by young Najee, who will be an NFL headliner in due time.
The Mega-Million Dollar Groin
Few things were more deflating in last week’s game than seeing recently signed to a world record for defensive players T.J. Watt limping off of the field with a pulled groin.
It’s not reason enough for the Steelers defense to crumble like cookies in Santa’s beard, but it was an understandable blow to the morale of the team to be certain.
For those who are hoping Watt will return to the lineup this Sunday…well…not so fast.
If you’ve ever competed at a high level in sports you would know that groin injuries take a long time to heal and they have the unique capability of transforming world class talent into milk toast mediocrity with the snap of a muscle.
Without a well functioning groin, you have no explosion. No burst to the left or the right.
And, without that, Watt is a minimum wage, run of the mill journeyman.
Be patient. Give it time. Let the groin heal.
All Pro talent is worth the wait.
Regaining Our Stripes
The only good thing about the Steelers losing to the Las Vegas Raiders is that the NFL schedule was kind enough to serve up the Cincinnati Bengals as next up on the list. The Bengals have their own issues of self-doubt after suffering a frustrating loss to the Chicago Bears.
Cincinnati embarrassed themselves through most of the game, and only tightened the score with some big plays toward the end of the match.
They will be seeking their own form of redemption, yet they have enough vulnerabilities in their roster to make this a very winnable game for the Steelers when one is most needed.
Also, the Bengals have an offense potent enough to give the Steelers defense another reality check.
Who are we on defense? And, just how good are we? Inquiring minds need to know.
Pittsburgh can’t afford to drop two home games in a row against AFC opponents and it would be even more painful to lose against a team in their own division.
They will need to grab this tiger by the tail, or the tale of this season might take a turn for the worst.