Also known as the NFL offseason. Yes, I know meaningful games (and the Pro Bowl) are still left to be played, and I plan to at least pay lip service to this weekend’s impending conference championships and the gridiron scraps what precursed them, but let’s be real. This is a Steelers column, intended (mostly?) for Steelers fans, and for the Steelers, the offseason has already started in earnest. Because I intend for this to be my final published word on the team until well into NFL Draft run up, if not after the Draft itself, I’ll look to cover a lot here, very likely too much. My apologies in advance. I’d foolishly thought I might also be able to shoehorn assorted quick looks back at the tumultuous debut year of this column, but, brother, was I mistaken, so I’ll only say this: “Steelers Thoughts”, due to its construction and (formerly rigid) publishing schedule, was never particularly a joy to write, though, in spontaneously capturing both the vertiginous heights and soul-crushing depths – the latter, unfortunately, more often than the former – it absolutely was a representative sampling of one of the slipperiest, most schizophrenic seasons in the Steelers’ 80+ years of existence. And that’s kind of what I always intended the column to be. If the season cooperated much more enthusiastically than I sometimes might’ve preferred, well, I guess that’s football for you.
I’d like to take a moment to wish you all a happy new year, whether you are a Steelers fan or, perhaps, someone of a neutral or more international disposition. As 2015 dawned, Pittsburgh was most definitely trending up, as newly-crowned AFC North champions, boasting five Pro-Bowlers (and, as it would turn out, two All Pros), in final preparations for its presumptive home finale, which happened to also be its first playoff game of any type in three seasons. There was not only a pervasive sense of optimism in the air, but legitimate cause for it. I certainly felt it. How awesome were those “Steelers run the North” t-shirts, after all? I know I wanted one. I wanted to lounge around that locker room, wearing my shirt, faux-smoking a cigar and acting like a big wheel. It had been a long time (in Steeler terms) since this team had accomplished anything more significant than a non-losing record, and with so many young bucks on the field – kids who’d never sniffed a Super Bowl before – and starting to be counted on to make contributions, the sense was palpable that just maybe a corner was in the process of being turned. The notion did occur to me, at least in passing.
As is the case with so many of life’s petty miseries, the Baltimore Ravens factor heavily into disabusing Steelers Nation of such notions. It’s taken just under two weeks of grumbly rumination to get me to the point where I can even write about it. Having barely survived its struggle with the suddenly regressing and script-adherent Browns just to reach the playoffs, the Ravens arrived in Pittsburgh with not only its cast of colorful scoundrels/usual suspects – walking Key & Peele sketch (Fuuuuudge!)/angel of death Terrell Suggs, all or nothing QB/anthropomorphic unibrow Joe Flacco, absurdly abrasive possession receiver extraordinaire Steve Smith, returning performance enhancement enthusiast (and admittedly killer DT) Haloti Ngata, “not Ray Rice with somehow even better numbers” Justin Forsett, among so many noxious others – its fine whine connoisseur of a coach, and that perpetual chip the size of Chesapeake Bay on its collective shoulder intact, but also a defiant, nothing to lose attitude that carried forward into the game.
Hopelessly hobbled by the absence of All Pro RB Le’Veon Bell, a Pittsburgh offense that had grown over the season’s course into inarguably among the most balanced and potent in all football became suddenly, mortally, one-dimensional again, and the Ravens absolutely teed off, loosing ceaseless waves of purple-clad goons at QB Ben Roethlisberger and his shockingly insufficient blockers. There was gore galore and more, with hurried passes and sailing passes and dropped passes. Ben himself was dropped more than his fair share of times and, quite possibly, mildly concussed during the final (meaningful) drive. There were turnovers that both should’ve been but weren’t and shouldn’t have been but were, almost all to our detriment. Heath Miller fumbled, for goodness’ sake. There was, as in most losses, also a metric ton of penalties (8 for 114 yards), including several patently stupid personal fouls. The Flacco Brigade was cool, collected, and maddeningly efficient throughout. Our defense simply laid insufficient hands upon them.
Check out this quick, but instructive, selective stat comparison (h/t ESPN):
Total tackles: BAL – 74; PIT – 56
Solo tackles: BAL – 52; PIT – 34
Sacks: BAL – 5; PIT – 1
Tackles for loss: BAL – 7; PIT – 4
Interceptions: BAL – 2; PIT – 0
The first of those interceptions, of course, came when Roethlisberger, under typically severe pressure, attempted late in the fourth quarter to flip the ball to former Cleveland Viking and last-minute Bell understudy Ben Tate, only for the ball to bounce off Tate’s semi-outstretched fingers and into the waiting thighs (you read that correctly) of a tumbling, opportunistic Fudgesuggs. Forget about Ben’s desperation, possibly woozy, interception thrown later that period to seal the loss. When Terrell Suggs somehow legitimately intercepts you, utilizing all four of his hamhock extremities while in the act of falling to the ground, the game is not only officially over, it pretty much ended before the opening whistle. The Steelers were consistently blown off the ball in both directions, and deposited directly into the offseason. Sharmarko Thomas did block a punt with under two minutes left, if for no other reason than to give browbeaten Steeler fans one last glimmer of hope, which was subsequently snuffed out on arrival. Good on him nevertheless. I’ve no idea what role Thomas fills next year, but I do know he’ll at least have a job. He’s been flashing some real effort on special teams of late. It was a strangely impressive final gasp, in a game that was a dispiriting end to a confounding season.
- Glad, of course, to see that the Bengals are watching the conference championship round from home for the 26th consecutive postseason. I’m incredibly petty, I know, but I’m also up front about it. Football fans often either don’t care much at all or care entirely too much. As a member of the latter faction, I have plenty of focused disdain to spread around whenever circumstances warrant. I live in Central Ohio, where the unreasonable, sustained happiness of football fans wearing orange has at least as much influence on my moods as do -9 degree temperatures. Football Seasonal Affective Disorder, call it. This was, to put things mildly, something of a topsy-turvy season. Nice to see some measure of normalcy restored in its waning days.
- Congrats, I suppose, to the Patriots, who, for the first time in my approximately four-game history of selectively rooting for them (all, I’d imagine, coming against the Ravens) didn’t completely screw me. Now, if you would, kindly become beatable again in time for the Colts game on Sunday. Andrew Luck is a nice, neck-bearded young man. He has good stats, a sunny disposition, and sincerely congratulates pass rushers immediately after they hit him, which I think is kind of marvelous. Indy’s a pretty nice town, and definitely has a deserving fanbase. I’m behind you all the way, Colts! Prediction: NE – 31 IND – 17.
- Die, Ravens.
- I’m no fan of either team in the NFC championship game, but at least we are spared the spectacle of seeing the Dallas Cowboys’ first appearance in the final four since it and Neil O’Donnell toppled the Steelers nineteen Super Bowls ago. That means no breathless coverage of the odd bromance budding between North Texas liege lord Jerry Jones and NJ governor Chris Christie, no (further) waxing rhapsodic on Tony Romo’s comeback season for the ages, and no extended looks at Dez Bryant’s ridiculously expressive, practically elastic face in mid-contortion as he pleas for the referees to reverse a call. So it’s a mixed sort of blessing. As to that call he so vociferously shouted down? Please. Bryant made a terrific, high-jumping play on the ball and possessed it right up until the point he hit the ground. Then it moved, a lot, end of story. Leave aside what you think the rule itself is worth. By the letter of the law, it’s the proper call. One can make a good circumstantial case that the ‘Boys shouldn’t have made it to the Divisional round to begin with, and that Detroit got hosed when that late flag for defensive pass interference was first thrown and then picked up in the Wild Card round. I’m firmly in that camp.
- I have marginal dislike for both remaining NFC teams, but not enough to truly cloud my judgment. If chestiness was a quality that translated into actual wins, I’d say give Seattle the Lombardi right now and save us the drama to come, but otherwise I’m not so sure. Turns out that Peyton Manning played with an injured quad for weeks, possibly sealing his career in the process, and that disappointing Steelers free agent pickup Mike Mitchell got to that level, in part, by playing with a “torn groin” for most of the season. I don’t see how one even accomplishes such a thing, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the Packers, as they’re supposed to, have been advertising Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury for weeks now, and he keeps hobbling out of incoming fire, playing through pain and doing just enough to win. I think that continues at least another week, though I honestly have no idea why. Maybe this week Rodgers gets skewered. Maybe Kam Chancellor accidentally jumps over his head instead of delivering the game-winning sack. It’s a crap shoot. Prediction: GB – 28 SEA – 24.
- Die additionally, Ravens. You know, for good measure.
“Coach Dad”/getting defensive
Every time former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is referenced, it seems, his age is either mentioned up front or a mention is imminent. It’s become a tiresome reflex, practically an unconscious tic, on the part of the sports media, which is always on the lookout for anything it can spin into a good story. Seriously, the recent headline on ESPN.com’s front page sidebar read, at least for a time, “LeBeau, 77, resigns as Steelers d-coordinator”. Dick LeBeau’s age is a running gag, and, to many, his distinguishing characteristic, despite the fact that he is also a pro football hall of fame cornerback, a former head coach, a celebrated, long-tenured defensive coordinator – in which capacity he is the owner of two Super Bowl rings and numerous top five defenses overall – and the architect of the highly influential zone blitz scheme, or that, as a figure and a man, he is simply beloved by his players and by the city and extended football family of Pittsburgh, including much if, presumably, not all of the Steelers organization internally. None of it ever seems to matter terribly except the age. The Steelers have spent the five years since Super Bowl XLV reassessing the time-tested, battle-hardened lineup that got them there, making so many difficult cuts over a short period (Ward, Farrior, Smith, Hampton, Foote, Woodley, Clark, Sanders, Batch, Wallace) that a few of them, namely DE Brett Keisel and LB James Harrison, were barely out of the building before being called back to serve (with distinction, I might add). After a marvelous ten-year return engagement as head of the Steelers’ defense, which only took its first backward steps toward his tenure’s end, and coming on the heels of a tremendously delicate and difficult year on that side of the ball, it makes some small measure of sense that the man who, second only to owner Dan Rooney, seemed to be the organization’s de facto father figure, a man widely, affectionately known as “Coach Dad”, would find his way out of town by mutual agreement. I’m not here to question the official line. No matter the behind the scenes machinations, both parties almost certainly benefit from a fresh start. Making sense doesn’t make it easier, though.
Depending on your perspective, LeBeau might’ve actually done some of the best coaching of his career in 2014. His cupboard was not exactly overstuffed. By training camp, the Steelers’ youth movement already appeared to be stuttering, if not stalling, having counted among its subtractions not just “old men” like Keisel and Harrison but also highly drafted recent cap casualties like Keenan Lewis and Ziggy Hood, the former of whom might’ve made a world of difference to a perpetually embattled secondary, though the latter never approached the expectations inherent in replacing a should’ve been Hall of Famer like Aaron Smith. The team struggled to create a consistent pass rush, leaning hard on 2013 first round OLB (and star of Subway commercials) Jarvis Jones on one end and retaining mercurial free agent Jason Worilds by overpaying him with a franchise tag. When Jones was injured early in the season, the team reached out to (in an incredibly understated, dignified manner) former Steeler, Bengal, and, I believe, Friday villain, James Harrison, the 2008 defensive player of the year and, in his 102-yard pick six against the Cardinals in XLIII, author of the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Late in training camp, the team shored up its sagging line considerably with the 11th hour re-addition of the hirsute, boisterous veteran Brett Keisel. You’re possibly noticing a weird pattern by now. The Steelers released aging but still talented S Ryan Clark in the offseason in favor of underperforming Panthers free agent Mike Mitchell, but, soon enough, it appeared that all-world Steelers icon Troy Polamalu was the one who had truly lost a step. The secondary in general was, putting it generously, a work in progress the entire season, with William Gay, an oft-burned former nickel corner the Steelers had actually cut years earlier, becoming a starter, Cortez Allen (a.k.a. the CB we kept instead of Keenan Lewis) steadily, incredibly, playing himself off the gameday roster and into non-entity status among fans, and a rotation of castoffs filling the other starting roles once Ike Taylor went down with a broken arm. Taylor’s replacements, Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, performed ably given their expectations and negligible reputations. Both are free agents, as are Worilds, Harrison and overachieving stop-gapper Arthur Moats, who, among them, seemingly account for 70% of the team’s sacks.
LeBeau’s final Steeler D had its share of bright spots. Defensive end Cameron Heyward has emerged as a stud and probable eventual captain. He pressures the QB from a position that is geared more toward stopping the run, never takes plays off, never stops working or trying to get better. After years of largely unsung heroics, Lawrence Timmons made his first Pro Bowl as a stabilizing force up the middle and a tackling machine. Speaking of the middle, first round pick Ryan Shazier gets an incomplete grade at best after spending half the season on the injury report and another third chasing the hungry kids that supplanted him. The quartet of Timmons, Shazier, feel good story of the year Sean Spence, and ridiculously scrappy late rounder Vince Williams looks sufficient to solidify the Steelers at ILB, making that the one defensive position that all approaches the level of depth and continuity the team boasts on offense. The Steelers defense was up and down all season, and for the most part kept its collective head just above water, though it seemed to be gaining appreciable cohesion and momentum going into the playoffs. That only serves to make the Ravens loss more disappointing. LeBeau was a renowned chessmaster and calm, inspirational force whose team played hard, first and foremost, so it wouldn’t feel it had somehow let him down. His departure makes it improbable that aged fence-sitters like Harrison and Keisel would jump at the opportunity to return for another year, which is potentially problematic, given how well they performed. So the more ways one looks at LeBeau’s exit, the more it looks like the definitive end of an era, veteran holdovers like Heyward, Timmons and Steve McLendon notwithstanding. In my opinion, the game did not suddenly pass him by, and, as I alluded to above, there were flashes of the glory of prior years reflected in the altogether muddier, more wearying results of 2014. I don’t know whether LeBeau deserved to be let go. The emotional side of me feels like he unequivocally deserved to go out on his own terms, though as the definition of a football lifer, it’s fair to question whether he ever truly would have, if left to his own devices. Either way, he’ll be missed.
Keith Butler, and the Steelers’ not-too-distant future
As linebacker coach for almost all of LeBeau’s tenure, and such an heir apparent (apparently) that he turned down coordinator offers from Miami in 2010 and Indianapolis in 2012 to remain on staff instead, Keith Butler obviously values his new position as Steelers’ defensive coordinator, and, as might be divined from the previous section, he is stepping into quite a challenging situation. The good news is that he’s studied diligently at the master’s feet for a decade, already commands player respect (thus ensuring some measure of continuity in the transition), and has a disposition – blunter and more straightforward where LeBeau tended toward a gentler, more cerebral approach – that might be just the ticket for a team that needs to dig deep within itself to reverse the troubling trends that stood out in 2014. The issue, as might also be divined from the section above, is largely one of insufficient personnel, and as the offseason kicks off, with dozens of free agent considerations to be studiously made, followed by the ultimate crapshoot of the draft, I think it positions as a make or break period for the Steelers.
Butler will now have critical input on the defensive needs being addressed, but the onus really falls on general manager Kevin Colbert, who seems to elude much of the criticism leveled at the team for underachievement by virtue of his lofty but exceedingly low profile perch. If Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau, Kevin Butler and their coaches occasionally made a rotten dinner, it’s worth asking if perhaps the ingredients thrown into the stew were as much to blame as the preparation and execution. Colbert and Tomlin signed off on the lack of offseason movement in rebuilding the secondary – except for Mitchell, from whom, injury aside, the jury is still out – and drafted speedy future Arena League standout Dri Archer instead of a desperately needed corner in the third round. I applauded the Archer pick in May, thinking he might be the X-factor our offense was missing. Instead, his lighter than air blocking and penchant for instantly blown up screen pass receptions tended to slightly drag down a suddenly soaring offensive attack whenever he saw the field, and the defense suffered by proxy.
I’m not demanding heads here – not at all – but the fact remains that, for whatever reason, the Steelers could not pressure the opposing quarterback with any level of consistency, and, as a result, trotted out a secondary – from the tip of Troy’s hair to the tip of Ike’s foot – that was exposed and far too often left to fend for itself, though it responded admirably given its perceived athletic and experience deficits. In writing this column over the course of the year, I had to internalize and come to grips with the idea that it wasn’t just established winners such as Joe Flacco or Drew Brees having their occasional way with us, it was Mike Glennon, it was Brian Hoyer, and it was Michael Vick. No matter how together our offense appears at a glance, and however worthy of excitement it is when all components are healthy and dialed in, our defense presents a polar opposite look. To the degree that the Steelers succeeded defensively in 2014, it was due to returning short-timers like Harrison and Keisel decisively outperforming both critics and expectations, or to underdogs like Spence or McCain stepping up hard to be counted, or to workhorses like Timmons and Heyward desperately trying to hold back the flood.
Strictly in terms of the physical capacity these men present, in their ability to, in Tomlin-speak, “play above the line”, the Steelers are left in a fairly precarious spot, with far more questions than answers. This defensive squad has the potential to field the most change in recent team history, all but erasing its already tenuous links to Super Bowl XLV and before. LeBeau didn’t suddenly forget how to coach, and Butler isn’t going to automatically zoom right past him now that he’s been promoted. More attention has to be paid up front to the materials and construction before anyone can start expecting a masterpiece on the field. Football is among the most immediate of passions for both observer and participant. It’s so hard to preach or practice patience in a pressure cooker, but that, and a healthy bit of perspective, is what’s probably required for this defense to move forward properly.
Conventional wisdom will be to attack the defensive holes in the draft, most likely addressing pass rush and cornerback in the first two rounds, but I’m not sure one high profile draftee per position of need is even sufficient. So, allowing for the fact that the Steelers probably don’t have a repeat of 1974’s historic draft class in them – this time striking gold at, for example, OLB, CB, NT, S, TE, OLB and CB again – the team is going to have to at least consider bringing in significant free agents, something it is generally philosophically loath to do. Even then, salary cap considerations will preclude us from bringing established stars, but I feel strongly like we’ve got to connect on a free agent or two this around. Imagine unearthing the equivalent of Farrior and Hartings, except this time at OLB and CB. Yeah yeah, I know. I’m doing it again. Accomplishing anything in the free agent arena (or maybe even not) will require another round of particularly hard cuts, Worilds and the great but somewhat faded Polamalu possibly among them. I honestly have not the first clue what to expect from the Steelers defense this fall. It’s practically a clean break, with history, with tradition, with normalcy. I’m uneasy, but this is precisely the time of year, still licking wounds, where we might be expected to let hope spring a little in response. It’ll be up to Colbert to wrangle the horses and Butler to turn them into a team. I’m cautiously optimistic they’re the men for the job. Might be I’ll be watching through squinted eyes with gritted teeth, but I’ll definitely be watching.
We’re in this together, after all. Take a reasonable break. Breathe normally. See you at the draft.
One Last (off-topic) Thing
Congratulations to The Ohio State University Buckeyes for winning the national championship and definitively silencing all but segment of college football’s exploding viewership comprised of actual crickets. You played your hearts out, rallied together in the face of extreme adversity and top competition, and remained a true team the whole way. Cheers all around. You’ve done this (adopted) Columbus boy proud!