After a trip to Hollywood short circuited against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue their journey for relevancy against the team that earlier this year called them out as quitters.
Yes, it’s the Steelers versus Joe Burrow and the dynamic Cincinnati Bengals in yet another in a long cavalcade of really need-to-win scenarios for the Black and Gold. Will Tyler Boyd regret his post-game comments questioning Pittsburgh’s heart following the Bengals win earlier this year?
The much more important question demanding an answer is, “Are the Steelers contenders this year?”
With a loss, Pittsburgh would enter firm fair-to-midlands status with a 5-5-1 record and would have the indignity of having been swept by Cincinnati, the division’s long-time former also-rans.
That would be bad enough, but the Bengals aren’t even in first place in the division. That would be the Baltimore Ravens.
Yet, if the Steelers can accomplish something that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been quite adept at throughout his career, that is, to win in Ohio, then Pittsburgh would be able to be above the line.
They would be 6-4-1 with a 2-1 record in the division heading into the chilly December months. Not a bad place to be, especially considering how much they’ve had a sputtering of a season thus far.
This would also give them some renewed confidence and much needed momentum as they face their loathed rivals, the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field the following week.
That’s right, folks…a double dose of AFC North extravaganzas. Following these two bruisers it should be fairly well determined whether the Steelers 2021 turkey is cooked, or whether the team will be favored to earn a second serving of mashed potatoes and gravy in post season play.
If you love yourself some Steelers football, it won’t get much better than what is being piled on your plate in the next couple of weeks.
But, first things first. Inquiring minds want to know. Will the return of the defensive starters to this week’s lineup be enough to get the Steelers back on a roll? Speaking of rolling, let’s give this a Spin.
Green With Envy
What stood out most in the Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the Chargers last week by the score of 37-41 was that the Bolts have a future, and the Black and Gold do not.
That is, a future quarterback.
Watching young passer Justin Herbert shred apart the Steelers motley crew of a taped together defense was two parts helplessness and one part jealously. He reminded of a youthful Dan Marino in the way he showed composure, a quick release and pinpoint accuracy. He danced around pretty well, too.
As hurtful as it was for Chargers fans to see their stadium overrun by towel-twirling Steelers Nation, it must have been pain-salving to at least know they won’t need to be drafting quarterbacks for the next…say…fifteen years or so.
It was reminiscent of that same feeling in 2004 when a rookie who would soon earn the nickname of Big Ben flashed his brilliance in what would end up being a 15-1 regular season rookie year by the then prodigy.
After literally decades of putting up with mediocre-at-best quarterback play, there was this incredible sense of relief and acknowledgement that we had found our man, and that the search was over.
The Reynolds family was so sure we had found our future Terry Bradshaw we even named our new kitty “Ben”. Sadly…Ben went to Cat Nirvana a couple of months ago, ironically right around the Cincinnati loss this year.
As for the gray-bearded, grizzled, yet still mighty Roethlisberger, he continues to make a statement that he still has a few throws left in him.
He finished the game against the Chargers with 273 yards and a passer rating of over a hundred. Although, his day ended with one of the most frustrating, back-peddling last drives, he played well enough to give the Steelers a fighting chance up until the end.
When will the Steelers find their next Roethlisberger? Their next Herbert, Kyle Murray or Lamar Jackson?
It’s the looming shadow of the season. A question that should have been answered before, but that will most certainly need to be dealt with in drafts for years to come.
There is no reason to dwell on the obliteration of the Steelers defense by the Chargers last week, and the lowly Lions the week before. There is no doubt that injuries have taken their toll, and that bell never rang louder than last week when T.J. Watt, Minkah Peterson and Joe Haden were limited to cheering roles.
Yet, despite this, it’s aggravating how quick Steelers Nation is to blame losses and poor play on either injuries or officiating. Dear fans, team depth is the responsibility of a grown-up National Football League organization.
Whatever happened to “Next Man Up” mentality?
Injuries. Referees. Blah…blah…blah. That’s every team’s burden to carry. Stop yer whining, will ya?
The Pittsburgh Steelers organization chose to put nearly all of their eggs into the Roethlisberger basket years ago, in terms of providing him with coaches he liked and the paychecks he required. This is the chief reason why this team has the paper-thin talent depth it currently possesses, and why players you never heard of were hopelessly trying to chase Herbert last week.
It was a strategic, organizational-wide decision, and whether you like it or not, it’s the reason why the team currently is what it is.
It’s sometimes because of the thinner skin, accountability-evading faction of Steelers Nation that I actually appreciate that there is a Bill Belichick in the league.
Anytime you hear foam-at-the-mouth fans saying we should be content with being merely competitive in the modern NFL, shouldn’t expect to be in a Super Bowl hunt every year, and that there are no dynasties, no dominant teams, no coaches that can overcome injuries, limited player talent and league parity, you get to point to Belichick and say, “Oh yeah?”.
Big Man, Big Heart
Besides having to endure watching a young promising franchise quarterback embarrass our pass defense, we did get to witness another in a long line of reels of tape endorsing Cam Heyward as the most prototypical Steelers player of the new millennium.
Yes, we’ve have some great ones, and from a pure talent and splash play standpoint, you can’t…ever…forget Troy Polamalu.
There are those of us who have long forgiven James Harrison for that little treacherous foray over in New England, and consider him the perfect embodiment of old school Steelers intimidation.
But, as you see Father Time himself being sacked by the play of Heyward, game in and game out, it’s hard not to give the Captain the nod over all else who have played defense since the people were partying like it was 1999 and the Y2K Bug was threatening to pull down the Matrix.
It’s one thing to be a great player on a dominant defense.
It’s another to be endlessly dominant in desire, effort, leadership, team play and production anytime the clock is ticking, and regardless of the score or the lack of skill of those playing around you.
Heyward’s defensive play in tracking down a scrambling Herbert some thirty yards down the field while his teammates lay helpless on the ground will stand as yet another visually glorious milestone of his career.
Could one play in an otherwise demoralizing team defensive effort be the turnaround of the season? That one very well could.
Polamalu? One of the greatest safeties ever. Harrison? Put the pure joy back in ill disposition.
Yet Heyward? For me, his leadership and role modeling give him the nod.
Catch The Ball!
Not since the days of Ike “Otter Hands” Taylor has there been so many screams by fans through televisions in the direction of the Steelers secondary.
So far this season, the Steelers only have four interceptions, and keep in mind, one of those is credited to Cam Heyward.
With one of the fiercest pass rushes in the NFL, the collective assortment of Steelers cornerbacks and safeties are without excuse. And too many times, those interceptions have bounced off hands and helmets.
This has been the week of the most heightened Devin Bush bashings, and deservedly so. Even the uber-positive and teammate affirming former Steeler Arthur Moats called Bush out for his lack of effort.
In watching Bush’s play, it’s clear he has not fully recovered from his ACL injury last year. In almost all sports, a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament takes one year to heal from physically, and one additional year to recover mental confidence in the reconstructed knee.
Bush’s play and contact aversion should not be unexpected by coaches or fans.
It didn’t help him that he was paired with Joe Schobert who has demonstrated himself to be an adequate technician, but who is hardly going to remind anyone of Levon Kirkland in terms of physicality.
No, the Steelers have been exposed as soft in the middle, and without players like Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt available in the center of the defensive line, this isn’t fixable this year. Not with this roster.
Which gets us back to the importance of the Steelers secondary to “catch the ball!”.
This is not a defense that will be able to impose its will on the opposition. They are going to have to put up their best wall of resistance and take advantage of errant passes when the roulette wheels spin in their favor.
For this defense to be able to heal thyself. It’s going to have to start creating turnovers.
Pumpkin Pie With Whipped Cream
Regardless of the fact the Steelers haven’t exactly been eye candy the last few games, there is still some tasty, sweet games on the menu, starting with this one against the Bengals.
Although we’re still waiting for THAT game where we get to sing and dance on tables and bars through all four quarters, we can be grateful the team is in it enough to make these games still meaningful and full of suspense and adventure.
What a perfect way to end the Thanksgiving weekend, that is with a pumpkin pie with whipped cream of game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Let’s hope at the end…we have something to be thankful for.