The 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers effectively ended the competitive phase of their season with a 55-31 drubbing at the hands of the New England Patriots. Losing football in the Steel City is a circumstance that many a young "yinzer" is not accustomed to enduring.
After all, this is a franchise that has won at least six games all but once in the past 44 seasons. That is a duration of time that encompasses nearly the entire combined tenures of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, three Super Bowl-winning coaches without a single Lombardi-less leader between them.
In a city spoiled by the spectacular, winters have usually had a hidden warmth that promises to be chillingly absent as we march toward 2014.
Nobody debates the fervent—nay, ferocious!—loyalty of Steelers Nation, but it's simple human nature even for the most fanatical loyalists to be disengaged by the agony of defeat. Terrible Towels will inevitably twist with a little less torque, Primanti Brothers sandwiches will taste just slightly less delicious...
Hell, even the confluence of the three rivers will stream and froth with just the slightest bit of melancholy, as even the land and waterways of the Southwestern Pennyslvania Alleghenies long for a return to sunnier Sundays.
Indeed, we can all pull the collective blankets over our heads, squeeze our faces into black and gold pillows and hope for something better. It won't matter; 2-6 is what we've got. And, frankly, though the season's boldest goals—namely, championships ranging from division to Super Bowl—may be almost decided, there's still a lot left to watch for as the second half of Pittsburgh football is played.
The games are going to kick off no matter the circumstances, so it's time to put the word loyal in front of the word fan and know what to watch for.
Let's start at the top, where the team's leaders have been under an intense spotlight ever since last year's late season meltdown. We'll begin with the head chief, the main man, the sultan of safe semantics: Mike Tomlin.
We've all heard the mix of rumblings and murmurings regarding Tomlin: "Yada, yada, Cowher's coat tails, yada, yada." While I will not ascribe his successes entirely to the foundation built by his predecessor, it is important to note that the team is desperate seeking an identity as Tomlin's thumbprint becomes more apparent and exclusive.
Tomlin's input has certainly contributed to some ill-fated draft decisions (at least, to-date) and personnel changes (potentially).
Note: With terms such as "to-date" and "potentially," one could easily accuse me of being the sultan of safe semantics!
Yet, with improved talent and execution, which will all be necessary if the Steelers hope to succeed going forward anyway, an identity will be much easier to forge. My question is: When will the mistakes end?
Not every team has a legacy filled with riches the likes of which earn them the right to put their names in front of the word "football" and have it MEAN something. STEELERS FOOTBALL. It has substance and sustenance. It speaks of physicality. Defense. Discipline.
One could argue all three of those factors are lacking on a team that has earned the right to place its name ahead of the word "football," unlike so many other franchises that have endured decades of seasons in the mold of the '13 Steelers.
Raise your hand if you've heard "Lions football" or "Jaguars football" as an exclusive term and not chuckled (or vomited).
That last descriptor, discipline, may be the most absent of the three as it concerns the season to-date in Steeltown. Fans continue to see turnovers at inopportune moments; an offense and defense that show flashes of former glory but never in unison; drive-killing or extending penalties; and general mental lapses that are the antithesis of a proud Steelers tradition.
While most (ahem!) "fecal matter" rolls downhill, the final call for discipline rolls uphill, and the mark for improvement falls on Tomlin.
If the Steelers steadily improve and make a run toward salvaging the season, it will require smarter play. Tomlin would be the first person to openly admit it. At 2-6, one knows there is no room for error, but one could just as easily argue that the pressure is now off.
Things can't get much worse in terms of the end result, so there may be no purer time to gauge how the head coach has his finger on the pulse of a sloppy team. Sometimes, the most dangerous team is the one with nothing to lose, playing loose and mentally existing just in the given week.
Now could be the perfect time for the team to shake off the uncharacteristic meltdowns of the last year. If the team continues to bumble (figuratively) and fumble (literally), a strange, foreign notion will present itself deep in the subconscious of Steelers fans: blaming the coach instead of the quarterback. Many are already in this stage of thought!
Speaking of Tomlin critics, they'll cite that he was a huge advocate for the inclusion of Todd Haley on the coaching staff.
The obvious target and, arguably, deserved goat (note, I did not say scapegoat!) for much of what ails the Steelers is Mr. Haley, the offensive coordinator whose public magnification was so intense that his nose hairs felt their right to privacy being violated.
Clearly, it's far more difficult to coordinate and successfully implement an offensive system with the onslaught of injuries the Steelers have endured. Heath Miller and Maurkice Pouncey headline the list of vital contributors to fall victim to injury, though the former did return after missing the first few games of the season.
While the return to action of Miller has certainly payed huge dividends in opening up the rhythmic, intermediate passing game Todd Haley desires, the question still remains whether or not the decision to bring in a coordinator of his mold was the correct one.
The concept of Haley's offense and play-calling isn't entirely bad. Certainly, a quick delivery of the football from Roethlisberger aids him against a papier-mâché, patchwork offensive front.
Likewise, Big Ben's targets are certainly conducive to a condensed passing attack, with shifty and elusive playmakers like Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders having the capability to perfectly compliment physical intermediate-range threats like Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller. In fact, Miller may be one of the most underrated two-way tight ends, able to both block and catch with prowess, in league history.
Clearly, the offense has talent at skill positions, particularly behind center. Still, there are plenty of questions, proverbial wrinkles awaiting an iron. Will games nine through sixteen provide sufficient steam for wrinkle removal? That depends on the answers to a couple of questions.
The lesser question is whether the offensive line will come together because we already know it will not. It may improve, but it will be a source of frustration until bodies return and new, capable athletes take on key roles in the trenches.
The more important question is whether or not an offensive system that seems counterintuitive to Ben's skill set can find late season success. I understand that Roethlisberger has had fine fantasy football outings, particularly last weekend in Foxborough. Nevertheless, those are fake figures as it concerns on-field player assessment, and Roethlisberger has often looked bottle-necked and mistake-prone in Haley's system.
Certainly, the blame doesn't fall exclusively on No. 7. Calling his line "his protection" is more of an irony than a descriptor. Yet, he's been careless with the football in key moments and has certainly had a lion's share of time to throw on plenty of unsuccessful downs.
The eyeball test still counts for something, and Ben Roethlisberger is not playing with the confidence, even when the offense is functioning around him, that he did some years back. One has to wonder if years of bum ankles are hindering an aging veteran. Indeed, eternal youth is not the norm in the NFL, unless of course you take your daily dose of Pete Carroll blood.
Being absent solid (or, at least, consistently solid) protection affects a quarterback's play drastically, as does the noticeable absence of a running game.
Yet, at the hallmark moments of his career, Roethlisberger was renowned for his ability to make plays down the field due to his uncanny knack for evading pressure in the pocket, building synergy with his receiving unit, and accurately delivering the football to his adjusting targets while on the move.
The end result was one of the highest all-time yards per attempt averages in league history; the Steelers offense was never comprised of world-breaking "chain movers," but they made their hay staying ahead of the sticks (running can do that for a team) and making big plays downfield born from Ben's other-worldly ability to maneuver.
Handcuffing a quarterback from his most inherent tendencies in order to accommodate your offensive vision doesn't make for a promising long-term outlook. Will Haley, whose neck is the most coveted body part in the Steel City, survive the season?
No matter how the offensive numbers look (or, hopefully, improve) over the course of the campaign, one thing Steelers fans can relish in is the dynamic playmaking ability of the receivers. This is particularly true of Antonio Brown, who continues to make his marquee highlight reel catches even in the most despairing games.
That alone is at least one good reason for fans to stay glued to their television sets, with any given play having the potential to be another gem.
Speaking of the playmakers, the continued development of Le'Veon Bell will be crucial. Though it is unfortunate that he rarely finds suitable running lanes, the frustration and CHALLENGE of hitting clogged gaps and having to work for every yard could ultimately aid in the progress of Pittsburgh's young playmaker.
His potential is high, and he could very well be the top back the Steel City has awaited since Bettis.
While I'd mention that the development of an offensive line that includes a "Whimper" (how fitting!) is something to observe, the reality is that the unit will continue the same frustrating song and dance until at least next season.
While injuries have hindered the O-line's development, bad draft picks (yes, I'm officially marking tackle Mike Adams in the bust category) and mismanagement have also factored into the poor play.
The offensive coordinator and his unit are not the only crew worth watching in the second half. Many argue the game is passing by Dick LeBeau. Keith Butler's name has been amongst the murmurings of fans antsy for change in a town not accustomed to being on pace for a 4-12 finish.
I'd argue that the scheme isn't the issue, which is a difficult assertion to make following a record-breaking 55-point drubbing in New England. It was another polished passing night for a quarterback who has earned the ire of Steelers Country with great play against the Black and Gold.
LeBeau's defense riddled by the Riddler Rex of field generals? Nothing new—Brady's been a bane to the 'Burgh before!
On a 3-4 defense, the front line absorbs much of the responsibility for making the system work. They control the run game, open holes for linebackers in pursuit of the football, and they create pressure themselves. With only one nose tackle in the scheme, it adds heightened responsibility to that role. Steve McClendon's played decently, but he has yet to show the type of consistent backfield presence promised in his flashes dating back to last year. And, the edge rushers, including linebackers such as Lamarr Woodley, have been noticeably tepid.
The lack of ability of the defensive line to get pressure is the main issue. The play of the defensive front affects all levels of the defense, from the trenches (obviously) to the deep zone, from the sub-guys to the nickel-and-dimers. Consider the impact of a defense staking claim to an offense's backfield:
- Longer down and distances.
- Less manageable third downs.
- Forced alteration of the opposing quarterback's throwing mechanics.
- Disruption of timing.
- Altering and concentrating receivers' routes to no more than intermediate downfield distance due to less time for play development.
- Disabling the offense's ability to flank backs and tight ends due to the need for additional protection.
- Affecting the angle of a quarterback's throw due to the disappearance of otherwise available passing lanes.
- Minimizing the time the secondary spends in coverage.
- Causing the opposing passer to assume pressure that is not present, often called "hearing footsteps."
- TURNOVERS. The absence of forced turnovers correlating to the lack of pressure the Steelers have forced is not a coincidence.
And, here's the real kicker as it regards a defensive front's ability to get pressure, such as through dominating play at the line of scrimmage and opening up lanes for aggressive linebackers to pursue the passer or ball-carrier: you either get ALL of the benefits above or NONE of them.
So, that's the theme for a struggling defense. Which athletes currently on the roster have the ability to force the play and help their unit get vital pressure. Pressure is the end all and be all. Pressure is the necessary tonic.
I've been impressed with the ability of Cameron Heyward to make his presence felt with some consistency in opposing backfields the last few weeks. Can he continue his upward trend? Likewise, will Julius Jones become the type of playmaking factor that so many recent draft picks have failed to blossom into?
Notice is served to Steve McLendon, Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel and crew to put the pedal to the floor and ratchet up their gameplay. Reestablishing dominance upfront is the key to rediscovering a top-ranked defense suddenly, according to most pundits, "past its prime." Perhaps it is.
LAMARR WOODLEY...PAGING LAMARR WOODLEY. (And friends).
Unlike Todd Haley, Dick LeBeau is a rather proven commodity in the Steel City, so I'd argue he deserves the benefit of the doubt for turning around a dubiously defunct crew in recent games.
Beyond the discipline instilled by the coaching staff, the execution of the players in the key roles that decide games and the general ability of the roster to prove or disprove its talent or lack thereof, there remains one more vital reason to pay attention to the second half of the Steelers schedule.
This final reason is the most important of all in a community where football is the fiber that creates the fabric.
LOYALTY. Plain and simple. LOYALTY.
WINS ARE STILL IMPORTANT, WHETHER THE SEASON IS SALVAGED OR NOT.
Because legacies never stop building. Good season or bad, every week of the NFL season is history building. Speaking of which, history shows that a top draft pick isn't necessarily as fruitful as a mid-rounder. Pole position in April isn't nearly as important as the ability of the team's executives and scouts to watch with a mindful eye for the future talent that best fits the team. It all comes down to making the correct call, not the first one, at the draft podium.
So, all of you who urge on losses for the sake of high-profile athletes who may or may not pan out on the professional stage need to reconsider your logic about what will save this team from an elongated period of losing. More important than a top draft pick, or ANY draft pick, is cohesiveness.
Cohesive discipline. Cohesive execution. Cohesive belief.
This is a franchise that has only lost more than 10 games once in over four decades of football. In other words, they've never won fewer than five games since Joe Namath's knees still worked! Ask fans in Jacksonville or any other number of success-barren locales if such a successful franchise is still worth rooting for even amidst a blip on the radar.
Pride is at stake. Let the real fans show their true colors by maintaining their interest, rooting feverishly week by week for another legacy-building victory, ever-optimistic about whatever kernels may be planted for many winning seasons to come!