The Pittsburgh Steelers know it all. Around the NFL this is considered a model franchise, that successfully distinguished itself from the heavy-spending teams that qualify for the playoffs only once in a while. They built their team knowing the power of their indestructible basement, and they never really went through a complete reconstruction.
Here they are again, folks. The Steelers are on their way to compete for another Vince Lombardi Trophy in the free agency era, a mission that not so many other teams have been able to accomplish in these recent years, since the NFL desired to give equal opportunities to all of its franchises, studying mechanisms like restricted and unrestricted free agents and a salary cap, preventing a privileged number of teams from stockpiling talent and winning by simply spending great amounts of dollars.
The Steelers, as well as the New England Patriots, taught us an important lesson. If you contain your expenses and draft smartly, you’re on your way to constant success. If a player brings distraction inside the locker room or demands too much money, you simply get rid of him trying to receive something useful in exchange, some other players or, preferably, future draft picks.
There are many similarities between Pittsburgh and New England. Think for a moment about the Deion Branch situation when he ended up in Seattle, the Richard Seymour departure to Oakland, and the decision to trade Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets for a fifth rounder.
These two franchises acted the same way. It did not make any difference if you were a Super Bowl MVP, or one of the best defensive ends in the league, or the man who gave you a ring with a circus catch, staying miraculously with two feet in bounds in a frame of seconds that will be forever remembered as one of the defining moments in Super Bowl history.
Every player is helpful. No one is strictly necessary. This is a team sport, and you can win only if your group of guys puts his ego elsewhere, and fully dedicates itself in one common goal.
A franchise can call itself successful when it’s capable of rebuilding without really doing that. The Steelers are rarely absent from postseason contention, they continuously add depth to their roster maintaining their competitiveness, and they keep their loyal fanbase satisfied.
In these years, the Steelers built a solid connection with its past principally picking well in the draft and searching for undrafted gems, putting every year a signifying touch to the Steel Curtain 2.0 that dominated so many offenses.
The process goes way back to a decade ago, when one of the most important pieces of today’s defense was picked. The guy was Casey Hampton, a fundamental nose tackle that would have anchored the run defense for very long time, and that’s still making impact plays on this year’s playoffs edition.
Their best year in picking was not 2003, despite the usage of their first rounder on the savage beast that filled the free safety role giving a sense of domination, Troy Polamalu, because four years later they did even better, bringing in a couple of pass rushing linebackers that would fit perfectly in their 3-4, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons.
Coincidentally, in 2007, a little-known undrafted prospect also rejoined the team for his second stint, with more maturity and more willingness in learning schemes. He quickly became the starter on one of the outside positions, gaining a Pro Bowl call, a Defensive Player Of The Year award, and a 100 yards interception return in the most important game he ever played in his career. James Harrison, in addition to Timmons and Woodley, went the form the most feared linebacker package in the entire NFL.
The Steelers did themselves a favor even when they chose Evander “Ziggy” Hood in 2009, fresh off their Super Bowl win against the Cardinals, adding an element that developed into a force against the run. They unconsciously provided themselves with the answer for the Aaron Smith injury, substituting one of the league’s best 3-4 defensive ends with one young, unproven player that filled so well his shoes.
The Steelers’ draft science also applies on the other side of the field, since the team invested so much first round picks to build an effective offense.
In 2004 Ben Roethlisberger was only the third quarterback chosen, as the Rivers-Manning debate went to steal many attentions from this guy from a small college, Miami (Ohio). Big Ben developed into a clutch quarterback, and despite a young career he’s already aiming at as third Super Bowl ring, clearing the way for himself through all-time greats.
His favourite possession receiver, a smiling tough man known as Hines Ward, was obtained in the 1998 draft and got even better with age, breaking one franchise record after another.
His speedy counterpart, Santonio Holmes, was picked first in 2006, and even when the Steelers decided to trade him for his off-field problems, they found his replacements again on draft day, adding depth with Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown during last April session.
Brown, a sixth round pick from Central Michigan, played a clutch role during playoffs, converting a 3rd and 19 in the fourth quarter against Baltimore, and catching a first down pass from Roethlisberger against New York, abruptly ending the Jets rally.
Heath Miller and Rashad Mendenhall also justified their first round value over the years: Miller, better known for his pass catching abilities, became a very good blocker and a complete tight end. Mendenhall provided the toughness to run inside and the quickness to get to the edge, partially overcoming is known ball security issues. In the AFC Championship, he played a great first half dismantling the Jets run defense, helping create a notable Pittsburgh advantage in terms of time of possession.
Even the young Maurkice Pouncey, a 2010 first rounder, gave a solid effort all year long despite his lack of experience, performing at high level in such a fundamental role, that requires blitz-reading abilities and strong leadership. He starred in a much-maligned offensive line, probably the Steelers' best-known weakness.
When Pouncey got hurt during the AFC Championship the Steelers did not suffer any sort of setback, trusting in another well-trained undrafted free agent they cultivated for emergency situations like these, the little-known Marshall-graduated Doug Legursky, signed in the 2008 offseason.
The basement of the Steelers’ enormous success can easily be found on their organization’s high qualities. They run the franchise with severity, they don’t permit anyone, including their superstar quarterback, to ruin their perfect image. Their scouting department often makes the right choices, they correctly develop young talent. They always identify their teams with the city’s hard working mentality, sweating for every yard on one end, and constantly backing off rivals on the other.
This is the mentality that maintained their high quality performances even in the middle of the transition from Cowher to Tomlin. They kept winning, and their fans never lose patience with them, because they knew that their team would soon be back to the top. Now they’re close at it, again.
Only one victory, and their legacy will grow more and more.