Any Pittsburgh Steelers fan who was shocked or awed by their team’s 16-16 tie with the declawed Detroit Lions has either been in suspended animation or in a mountainous cave the past decade.
Losing to (or in this case tying with) the worst teams in the National Football League has been one of the Achilles Heels of Coach Mike Tomlin’s otherwise applaudable long reign, and having the Steelers fumble twice in overtime seem more according to script than any sort of brain freezing plot twist.
Let’s face it, this has been a season of wink wink, nod nod. We want to believe. The Steelers public relations department wants us to believe.
But we know. They know.
We’re in quite a bit of a transition this year. This is not your typical delusionary tripe of “we’re not rebuilding, just reloading” propaganda swirl for the team.
Is the Steelers soul sapping performance to the Lions even mildly defendable?
Sure, the Steelers were hindered by the fact their starting quarterback was on Covid-19 protocol, sheltered from the chilly air and pounding rain and confined to watching the game on his couch while slurping chicken soup and emptying Kleenex boxes.
But, the woeful Lions had to play with a quarterback who because of an oblique injury suffered early in the game couldn’t even throw the ball.
Who had it better? The Steelers with a fully healthy backup quarterback in Mason Rudolph who they’ve been training and acclaiming for years…or the Lions who were forced to hand the ball off on 3rd and 10’s time and time again because their quarterback couldn’t throw it beyond the line of scrimmage without suffering from excruciating pain?
And, as an ego-crushing reminder, this was the 0-8 Detroit Lions.
There have been a long rack of disappointing wall mounted antlers and tusks in Tomlin’s tenure as the Steelers team leader, but this one certainly vaulted to the Top Ten of grinning warthogs.
In the background of the bad tripping, hallucinogenic mind warp of a game was the continual heavy downpour, as Steelers fans tried to keep their bodies and expectations dry, while witnessing their hopes for a Super season washing away with every missed tackle, which occurred as frequently as raindrops.
The only way we’re going to pull out of this is to try to burn the tapes, melt the film and clean the hard drives of what our fried synapses endured.
It was that bad.
The good news is that we’re about to face a Los Angeles Chargers team going through an even longer period of the sputters and sparks. We’ll need to use this game to jumper cable our way back to joy, to somehow recharge our irrational expectations.
Just being real. It ain’t gonna be easy. But, we’ll give it a Spin.
Not Adjusting Well
The Detroit Lions ran for 229 yards against the Steelers last Sunday. De’Andre Swift had a career-high 130 yards against the Black and Gold, including several runs where it looked like someone had told Pittsburgh they were playing flag football.
You could say the Lions reliance on the running game was attributed to the fact the Steelers were playing such phenomenal pass defense. After all, they held Jared Goff to only 114 yards total passing throughout the entire game.
But, did they hold Goff to just over a C-note because of extraordinary secondary play and coaching schemes? Or was it that the recently traded for a six-pack of beer former Los Angeles Rams player couldn’t throw the ball? At halftime Goff barely had more than a dozen passing yards and clearly he was literally crippled with an oblique strain (a muscle pull on the side of the body). In between possessions, he could be seen on the sideline with close to a hundred pounds of ice wrapped around his body.
The Steelers brain trust had to conclude that he was either cryogenically preserving himself for the 2098 Super Bowl, or that he was completely unable to pass the ball.
Yet, remarkably, the Steelers defense were almost oblivious to the fact they were playing against a team than could no longer physically throw the ball.
Another run play? How surprising?
How is it possible the Lions could gain a single yard on the ground with this insider, outsider and all betweener knowledge? If the Steelers middle linebackers were struggling to tackle, why didn’t the coaching staff put in…heck…I don’t know, two nose tackles to jam the gaps?
Defensive adjustments? The knobs must be pre-sealed before the games with crazy glue.
When it comes to Tomlin and the history of his teams grossly underperforming against miserable, barely NFL-worthy organizations, it clear the Emperor Has No Clothes. His post-game interviews are cringe worthy displays of denial and arrogance, almost as he believes we didn’t see what we just saw.
Following some version of “on any given Sunday” or “that’s why they play the game” or “they get paid too” we’ll be treated to some witty varietal quip about getting the team “back in the shop”.
But, it’s obvious to everyone but the Emperor that the adjustments and trips to the shop should be done long before these games are played. You don’t need to be a human behavioral expert to realize there are two different Tomlins on the sidelines when playing good or bad teams.
If it’s a big game, where Tomlin’s teams are the underdogs, you’ll see him fist pumping, chest bumping and infectiously loving what he is doing.
Yet, if it’s against the 0-8’s and the 1-7’s of the league, Tomlin’s facial expression is straight out of a Southwest Air’s “Want to get away?” commercial.
Underperforming in these games, time and time again? That stuff has to go in the shop.
Just Win, Baby?
During the past decade of Steelers football there has been a common refrain of “who cares how you win as long as it’s a win?” There is some belief there is some virtue in winning ugly.
But is this really true? Do championship teams “Just win, Baby?” For those of us blessed to enjoy the glory years of the Steelers, where they won four Super Bowls over the course of a decade, we saw Pittsburgh blowing out their weaker competition as a course of habit.
In fact, these blowouts were so revered and expected that there was fan-wide disappointment if the team…just won…without grinding the opponent’s helmets into the Three Rivers turf.
Does winning impressively even matter in today’s modern football era? Well…yes, it does. Let’s look at the regular season performances of recent Super Bowl champions.
The current champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, won games last year by scores of 28-10, 38-10, 45-20, 38-3, 46-23, 47-7 and 44-27.
The year before, the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs won regular season games by tallies of 40-26, 28-10, 30-6, 40-9, 23-3 and 26-3.
Not yet convinced?
The New England Patriots took the trophy the year prior with wins of 33-3 (against the Steelers), 43-0, 30-14, 33-7, 35-14, 33-0, 37-20 and 34-13.
This is why it’s an accurate indicator that you’re not a championship grade football team when you lose to, tie or barely beat lousy teams. Winning pretty does matter and is actually a requirement if you want to go far.
Getting through the playoffs in the National Football League is no easy task. In these years of parity, you can’t just be a strong team to make it through, you have to be a dominant team with the ability to crush weaker opposition.
Here’s the good news. The Steelers are 5-3-1 and with the floundering play of the Cleveland Browns and with the barn gate being left open by the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh is right in the hunt for the AFC North title, which would guarantee a spot into the playoffs.
The Steelers are catching the Los Angeles Chargers at the perfect time in their schedule. Their rapidly rising star of a quarterback, Justin Herbert, is in the midst of a particularly unique period of struggle in his young career.
This will not be an away game, because the West Coast contingent of Steelers Nation will foreclose on SoFi Stadium and will refurbish it with tens of thousands of gyrating Terrible Towels.
This is the right setting for relaunching the Steelers comeback tour.
But, this game also signals the beginning of the second half of the season. There are no more excuses. All teams are dealing with injuries, many more severe than those being faced by Pittsburgh.
It’s time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to clearly express who they are going to be as a team in 2021.
A true contender? Or just another blur of a season in Tomlin’s resume.
Recharged? Or overblown expectations? It’s all on the line Sunday night under the big lights.