Steelers Thoughts #5 (10/27/14): Rare Air

ben and ab

Expectations are fickle and fragile things for sports fans. They can serve as both crutch and anchor over the course of a long season. The wise fan monitors facts on the ground closely, considers trends and opposition, and, if needs be, adjusts his or her expectations accordingly. But football fans – indeed, fans of anything worth the investment – are just not overly cerebral creatures, or at least not on Sunday. We are ruled by our hearts, and the high expectations Steelers fans took into training camp 2014 and week 1 have already been both sorely tested and somewhat reconfigured through no real action on our parts. On the field, brutal defeat has followed hopeful victory all year, as if the two were dance partners, or unhealthy codependents, and fans, weary of enduring such extreme market fluctuations week after week, and understandably wary at the welcoming to town of a truly high class opponent – the kind that carries with it the inherent possibility of destruction without any need for stealth – remained hopeful while unconsciously steeling themselves for more of the same. We believed in our team’s talent and its ability to win, to play with focus and resolve, because we do so every week, though on several occasions already this year, we have been spectacularly wrong. Will the real Pittsburgh Steelers please stand up and play?

At the season’s midpoint, the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers now stand at a record of 5-3, tied for second in what has become far and away the most competitive, exasperating division in football. At the end of a month which saw them hang on against a horrendous young Jacksonville team, get humiliated by their ancient rivals in Cleveland, and ride a welcome jolt of opportunism to a decisive, high profile victory over Houston, the Steelers finally played up to their fan base’s sky high expectations, putting together far and away their most complete game of the year in surprisingly physical fashion. The Steelers paired an historic offensive explosion with timely and attacking play on defense, swarming and eventually pulling away from Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, who had brought to town their own weapon-rich and finely-tuned offense, perhaps the toast of the league (and definitely of fantasy owners) through week 7, a seriously underrated defense that beat the animal stuffing out of Cincinnati the previous week, and, most importantly, momentum, riding as they were a four-game winning streak into Heinz Field. The Steelers were 3.5-point underdogs at home, something Vegas rarely if ever sanctions, and conventional wisdom held that the Colts were operating at such a level of offensive efficiency, spearheaded by the tremendous recent play of QB Luck, that they might well run Pittsburgh, with its erratic defensive pressure and coverage issues, out of its own building. Despite an offensive roster which, on paper, matches up well with almost any in the league, the Steelers were to prove too inconsistent to hang with Indianapolis should the game to develop into a shootout. Instead, the team picked up where it had left off at halftime of the first Cleveland game seven weeks earlier, as surprising world beaters, demonstrating the welcome ability to stand up to punches while inflicting appreciably more damage than they absorbed.

A lot of shots have been taken at Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger over his eleven years in the NFL, by critics, pundits, defensive linemen (over 400 sacks is a hard number to shrug off), and energized and/or disgruntled fans wearing every team’s colors, including black and gold. He is, depending on the game you’re watching, either one of the NFL’s all-time great escape artists, clutch heroes and winners or a gunslinger who sometimes costs his team dearly in the biggest moments due to his immaturity and lack of focus. Whatever personal baggage you carried into Sunday’s game is immaterial, because Ben carried none. His intensity was fearsome, his strikes were on point, and his weapons made play after play, both routine and spectacular. On this day, Ben Roethlisberger (40-49, 522 yards, 6 TDs, 9 different receivers, no picks, no sacks) was dialed in and absolutely untouchable, and prolific as a quarterback on an historic level. More on that in closing, but first I offer a bushel barrel of kudos from the hard-fought 51-34 win that included more than its share of great individual play, coalescing together into a terrific team victory. The coaches called a clever and gutsy game, keeping the Colts on their heels as much as possible. The offensive line kept Ben clean and comfortable, and he responded with killer focus, will, and results, cognizant of the fact that letting up on the gas is never advisable against an offense of Indy’s caliber. This win not only reignites those flagging expectations I referenced before but pushes them higher still, making them perhaps a tad unrealistic going into next Sunday night’s must-see/must-win test against blood rivals Baltimore. If the Steelers play half as well against Baltimore as they did against the Colts (so, in essence, as well as they played overall against Houston), they’ll still have a decent chance. It was that kind of game.

The Steelers defense was much maligned coming into the afternoon for its inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks and for glaring coverage lapses that regularly opened them up for big plays. Buried in Roethlisberger’s avalanche of stats was the fact that Colts QB Luck also had a well above average day through the air, with 385 yards and 3 touchdowns on 26-45 passing, singlehandedly keeping the Colts within striking range until late, though he also threw two interceptions (William Gay’s pick six and Antwon Blake’s TD saver were both well-timed and executed) and accounted for a late safety when he was called for intentional grounding in the end zone. Luck’s three TDs all came on plays over 20 yards, underlining the fact that coverage remains an area of need to be worked on. The pass rush acquitted itself well despite registering only two official sacks, with old dogs Brett Keisel and a fully conditioned James Harrison providing timely disruption and OLB Jason Worilds basically living in Luck’s back pocket all day. First round pick Ryan Shazier saw a welcome return to active duty, though it’s important to note that the Steelers are still missing starting CB Ike Taylor and 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones. Performances like the one against the Colts give me hope that this defense, fully constituted, might eventually congeal into a uniformly formidable unit, rather than depending on individual performances to provide timely desperation boosts. This performance left fans much reason for optimism, though obviously giving up 34 points, even against a high-powered offense like Indy’s, means there is a lot of road left to travel.

I’m a baseball fan without being a true fanatic (longstanding Mets fandom tends to have that effect on someone who isn’t already all in), so I’m not much of a statistics guy, but on this afternoon they are an unavoidable topic of conversation. I came into this game with the knowledge that Roethlisberger, making his 150th start, would, with a victory, become only the fourth quarterback in NFL history (Bradshaw, Montana, Brady, Roethlisberger) to garner 100 wins in his first 150 starts, and that Antonio Brown – who, if not already the best wide receiver in the game, is still arguably its hardest working and most dependable – had his oddly reasoned but nevertheless impressive streak of consecutive games with 5 catches and 50 yards, which now stands at 23. Nothing prepared us for Roethlisberger’s performance, however. When CBS started publicizing it in the fourth quarter, a buzz of recognition and mild disbelief circulated amongst the members of my table. Roethlisberger, the graphic stated, was the first quarterback in league history to have two 500-yard games in his career. That, in itself, seemed amazing to me, the non-stat geek, but then came the kicker: at 522 yards for the day, Ben was tied for fourth on the all-time single game passing list, a mere 32 yards behind 1950s Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. Ben had spent the day picking apart Indianapolis surgically – throwing two TDs to Brown, two more to already ascendant fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant (there is no fourth syllable in his first name, announcers), one to veteran workhorse Heath Miller (on a daring 4th and inches play that set up, given our history, as an obvious run) and another, his first career TD, to Markus Wheaton – buying time and letting fly, with spectacular results. A greedy part of me wished aloud he’d throw one more 40-yard strike to Miller instead of running the ball/clock late in the fourth. This would have been a risky call, and, I admit, a patently incorrect one, but I also have total confidence it would’ve been a completion.

After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin spoke about the win in complimentary but measured terms designed to reign in the expectations of all involved. In fact, the Steelers locker room was practically bursting with mini-Tomlins after this rousing victory, led, again, by one Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger, who was only basking in the residual glow of his greatest day as a quarterback – one of the greatest ever by any quarterback – on the inside. I hope he can carry that attitude and resolve forward and build on it, even on days where the end result is more disappointingly mortal. ESPN did give the team and its captain some props, though the Robert Altman-esque overlapping mumblethon that passes for NFL Network’s studio recap show seemed far more preoccupied with our 80th anniversary throwback jerseys, which the Steelers, indeed, sported on Sunday for far from the first time ever, though they inspire sartorial horror anew whenever they are viewed. So you guys seriously needed something else to fixate on a day that produced these kinds of results? Ye gods/oh well. Dear World: We get that you hate the prisoner/bumblebee jersey. One of the unique privileges of being a Steelers fan is to be reminded of that fact by numerous random people each and every applicable game day. I, for one, have long since made my peace with the “Bumblebee” jersey (est. 2012, er, 1933), and, as my friend so aptly put it, “they can wear pink and purple as long as they win.” On a day when few realistically expected them to do so, the Steelers’ response to doubters both within and without its fan base was eye-catching, record-breaking, and emphatic. More importantly, it represented the initiation of the team’s first winning streak of 2014, one that can, and should, and, with continued focus, determination and playmaking on both sides of the ball, will be built on. If it’s Monday morning, it must be time to recalibrate expectations again.

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