The Pittsburgh Steelers were once regarded as one of the toughest and most physical teams in football. Now, the only time you hear that is when an opponent is asked before a game to describe the Steelers, or when they play in primetime, and the pre-game commentators invoke what now feels like ancient history.
If the Steelers are one of the most physical teams in the league in 2022, then the league has lost a lot of physicality. That goes for both sides of the trenches but applies especially to the defense, where linebackers haven’t been able to consistently get off of blocks (for those who can’t run around them) since Larry Foote and James Farrior.
Minus Vince Williams, anyway, the last vestige of physicality. And how do you get it back? Can you get it back? Can you coach it? Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith doesn’t think so. “It’s not something schematic,” he told reporters yesterday via the team’s website. “You can’t install being physical with somebody, that’s just got to be a mindset, so we’ve got to get back to that.”
“You can’t install being physical.” That’s quite a line and the one that stuck out to me when I heard Highsmith speak. He invoked the word ‘mindset’ half a dozen times, but the crux of the issue is that you can’t make players be more physical than they’re capable of being, or willing to be.
No matter how many tackle sessions you run in training camp, no matter when you run your padded practices during the regular season when you have a 330-pound guard on you, you’re still going to do what you do naturally. Are you going to stack and shed or are you going to get buried into the ground?
We’ve seen more of the latter lately than we care to, never more evident this season than during Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and it was an issue that only got worse over time, as Highsmith himself highlighted. “At the end of the game we lost the war of attrition,” he said. “As the game wore on, we got less physical.”
Even when everybody watching knew exactly what would happen. Down two points, with a rookie undrafted third-string quarterback in the game making his debut coming off the bench due to injury, the Ravens needed just one first down and they got it with three consecutive carries by Gus Edwards.
Now, Edwards is a fine running back, don’t get me wrong. The Steelers did win on second down. But they lost on first down and especially on third down, and they lost in the trenches. They lost the game of physicality. And then they lost the game.
They’re not going to suddenly win it back in time for Sunday. Whether they have better results or not, part of the issue is personnel, and that’s not changing in-season.