Being an underdog in the Dawg Pound is not something the Pittsburgh Steelers have experienced much in the past thirty years. But, that’s exactly what the football fates are serving up with this weekend’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
The Steelers bye week couldn’t have arrived with more perfect timing.
Exhausted, egos crushed, sleepless nights, feeling injured and abused and seeming to have already endured a 17-game season of disappointment.
And, we’re just talking about us Steelers fans.
What about the players?
Were there expectations low enough to not be as affected as we have been this year with underwhelming performances? Are they questioning themselves as harshly as we have been six games into the season?
Maybe not. Maybe in this day and age of the National Football League, for players it’s just another day in the office.
Grieving poor play and missed tackles is left to the Muggles.
Let’s hope not. Let’s believe the Steelers coaches and players realize their play has been much worse than even their record would indicate, and that being in the basement of such a talented division places us in a dire circumstance.
Yet, we don’t live in our fears. So let’s give this a spin.
The Tomlin Line
After a 1-3 start in the season there is much relief across the echoing halls of the Steelers front office.
Following a rather uninspiring, barely squeaked by, two-game winning streak against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks the Steelers have arrived at their highly regarded “Tomlin Line”.
Any whispers of criticisms of head coach Mike Tomlin through his tenure has been angrily retorted by this preemptory statement: “What’s wrong with you? The man’s never had a losing season.”
Well…at 3-3, we are safely at the Tomlin Line.
Now, while it’s easy to criticize Tomlin for so proudly displaying his participation trophies in his career cabinet, there actually is much to applaud with this accomplishment.
In the National Football League, keeping a team at or above the Tomlin Line for so many years is no third and one. Yet, after the slow start, he took the team past the marker once again with a fresh set of downs coming out of the bye week.
Mike Tomlin has a unique ability to keep ships off the rocks and it’s this captainship that will continue to keep him among the top of the coaching ladders.
Don’t expect him to fill any college coaching positions anytime soon.
Three’s A Charm
The Steelers will enter this critical game against the Browns with a slight breeze at their backs. Two wins in a row, and now they face a Cleveland team with its wings clipped.
Baker Mayfield will play this weekend, but he’ll have to do it with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Think that doesn’t hurt? He’ll be just a sack away from exiting the game every time he goes back to pass.
They’ll try to protect their gunslinger by having him mostly conduct hand-offs, but this won’t be an easy solution either. The league’s best two headed running back monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are a cup half empty as well.
Hunt is on injured reserve for this game and Chubb is returning back to the field after perhaps not fully recovering from a calf injury.
If you’ve ever suffered a calf pull as an athlete, you understand it will take Chubb at least a full game or two to get his confidence and capability back. You don’t use a calf muscle, you explode from it, and it’s one of the worst injuries a running back can experience.
But, don’t consider this to be a second bye week for the Steelers. Playing the Browns in their stadium won’t be any simple assignment.
Still, if the Steelers can somehow make it out the kennel with a dub then there is new hope on the horizon.
The next two games are home matches against lesser teams in the NFC North. It starts with a matchup against the Chicago Bears (3-4) who are struggling with quarterback confusion.
Next up are the woeful Detroit Lions (0-7), who are proving they are going to need every one of those draft picks they received from the Los Angeles Rams in the Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff trade.
Yes…I know…I know…we’re not supposed to look ahead this weekend’s game.
But, looking ahead, the Steelers could emerge from this trifecta with a 6-3 record and much needed momentum.
That’s because they will then enter the Halloween part of their schedule where they have three scary engagements in a row against the Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.
Ouch…that’s worse than getting green dyed popcorn for Trick or Treats.
Just when we were feeling better about ourselves…the Tomlin Line might find it’s way back to us again.
Who Am I?
Film will be watched. Bodies will heal. Personnel will be shifted. New plays will be diagrammed. These are all important activities that will occur during the bye week.
But, what matters most? It’s that the Steelers figure out who they are. And fast.
The Cleveland Browns have robbed Pittsburgh of their former identity. The Brownies are now the true blue collar team with a punishing running attack, a bone crushing defense and a quarterback who apparently will play with an arm dangling by a string off his shoulder.
The Baltimore Ravens may not boast their prototypical carrion feasting defense, but they possess one of the most balanced and dynamic offenses in the league lead by the extraordinarily gifted and undefendable Lamar Jackson.
Perhaps the most charismatic team personalities in the division are the Cincinnati Bengals, with a shockingly good quarterback/receiver tandem in Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase who as old college buddy friends might end up breaking every National Football League record, thereby unceremoniously diminishing names like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
What unit on the Pittsburgh Steelers is most exceptional and worthy of newspaper print? Ummm…you’d probably have to give the nod to Special Teams. Yes, Pittsburgh. All hail the new “triplets” of kicker Chris Boswell, punter Pressley Harvin III and long snapper Christian Kuntz.
Folks…if that’s the most dynamic part of your team, you’re wearing baggy sweats. That’s all there is to it.
What say you? The highly vaunted pass rush lead by T.J. Watt? Sorry, the Steelers are in the middle of the pack this year so far when it comes to total team sacks.
The secondary? They certainly aren’t proving to be secondary to none as All World Minkah Fitzpatrick needs to be reminded he’s in a contract year. Let’s just say, he hasn’t exactly been able to shout at his agent, “Show me the money!”
The middle linebackers? Fair to midland at best. There are no Levon Kirkland, Jack Lambert or even James Farrior type of performances happening.
What about offense? The line is young and seems to be improving by the week. But, you won’t see them on the cover Offensive Line Illustrated magazine anytime soon.
Receivers? Losing JuJu Smith-Schuster was a major blow, and although Diontae Johnson is making plays and showing good hands this season, Chase Claypool hasn’t been able to replicate the splashing of his rookie year. There is no “Young Money” personality rising.
The quarterback? He can’t seem to talk to the press without constantly reminding us how old he feels and how sore his body is these days. How many times do we need to see closeups of his hip pad on national television?
It’s getting to be like when Aunt Judith comes to Thanksgiving Dinner and can’t stop talking about her throbbing bunions.
Yes…there’s the rapid ascendancy of Najee Harris. Unfortunately, he isn’t going to be able to express himself fully while his offensive line is still sitting in high chairs and throwing Cheerios around the room.
The Steelers identity in 2021? It’s a whole lot of meh-ness, and they have a record and performances to prove the point.
For their story to change, and quick like, one of these units is going to have to grab the rest of the team by the scruff of the neck and say, “Let me drag you to where we need to go.”
Let’s just hope the highlight reels of the 2021 season aren’t crammed with creative footage of long snaps.
Nice Guys Finish…?
This is the team that Tomlin always wanted. It’s a team full of volunteers, not hostages. Well…I suppose with the exception of Melvin Ingram, a hostage that may be let free soon enough.
There are no more Le’Veon Bells distracting everyone with his rap career. No stories of Martavis Bryant eating brownies rather than beating Browns. No Antonio Browns dancing in hippo costumes and knocking over Gatorade jugs on live television.
These days. All nice guys.
Let’s face it…Mean Joe Greene wouldn’t have the right personality type to make this team.
This is really a great group of men. They all get along. They keep out of the news. They make Tomlin’s job of directing volunteers so much easier.
But, can they win?
I certainly hope so. I’m still of the belief that nice guys can finish first. Prove me right, fellas.
What’s In These Brownies?
It’s been decades since it’s been this good to be a Browns fan. Rather than talking about which flop of a quarterback they are going to draft with the first overall pick next year, they can talk about getting a good seed in the playoffs.
That, and beating the Steelers.
If the shoe fits wear it, and Steelers Nation has to take the punches without crying. How many times can we post pictures about all of those trophies we have?
Hello! We haven’t won a Lombardi Trophy since 2008. We need to shut up about the Glory Days and try winning one in THESE days.
So, what’s with these Brownies? What’s with them is they are a team of high draft picks and top talent that’s going to be a tough out this weekend.
Yet, with great challenges, comes great opportunity. Browns fans will be unbearable if their team pulls off humiliating us three times within one year.
But, defeating the Browns in Cleveland? Watching them put those brown bags back on their heads?
That could be the highlight of this still young season and the beginning of a major turnaround.