Steelers Thoughts #10 (9/28/15): (Next) Man Up

steelers

Though I am a fairly serious sports fan, DAE as a blog treats sports structurally as a sideline rather than headline topic, and only covers two in earnest: boxing* and professional football. The former is built on the strength of individual fighters and individual events, with no true off-season to speak of, whereas the latter is mostly off-season, building to a sustained five-month crescendo of weekly hostilities that dominates each fall. Football, by turns a joyous and vicious game – often in the course of the same sixty minutes – works on such a tight, unforgiving schedule, with every game precious and important in its own right, that its fans have no choice but full commitment from the moment the first whistle is blown. I’ve often worried that doing any real justice to pro football on a non-dedicated blog would be a fool’s errand, and making a cursory review of the nine official editions of “Steelers Thoughts” so far makes me feel plenty foolish indeed. Hey, let’s look back at last year’s ridiculous loss to Tampa Bay! Or last year’s crippling loss to New Orleans! Or our stinging playoff loss to Baltimore! Or our pitiful preseason performance in the Hall of Fame Game! I’ve loved the Steelers dearly since the age of five, and relished the idea of writing about them long before I ever had the venue or occasion. The Steelers won the AFC North last year, and returned to the playoffs after an unacceptable absence, yet it seemed all I could ever write about were the down times. Go seeking a ray of sunshine amongst my Steelers writings – five of the last six of which have, if not dwelled on negativity (because I hate that attitude and don’t think it’s constructive) at least been preoccupied with losses in either the win or personnel column – and you’ll get burned to crisp like an ant under a magnifying glass by the breathless details of QB Ben Roethlisberger’s first of two 500-yard passing games. What a beautiful game this is sometimes, truly, and how quickly and decisively it can turn.

*Boxing has unfortunately lost much of its sizzle and priority with me over the last year, though I’m hopeful that Floyd Mayweather’s “official retirement” and the flowering in its blessed wake of rising action stars such as, among others, Gennady Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez – both of whom have tantalizing PPV dates this fall – will prove a tonic for my of late unfocused attention.

Overshadowing the Steelers’ (now 2-1 on the season) rugged, workmanlike 12-6 road victory over the St. Louis Rams Sunday** was the news, and the eventuality, fans had been subconsciously dreading all year: the loss of QB Ben Roethlisberger for an extended period of time. Ben left the game after being hit at ankle level and bent the wrong way by Rams safety Robert Barron, who appeared to lose his footing on the way to the quarterback and lurch forward into him for the costly sack. The famously resilient Roethlisberger, who had spent the year to date largely untouched before garnering some unwanted second half attention, was facing perhaps the fiercest and most highly pedigreed front seven he will all year. He crumpled to the turf immediately, though he left the field with assistance and appeared in the moment to be putting more weight on his left leg than the breathless sideline reporter would later claim. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert has fairly thorough piece on why he thought Barron’s hit was dirty – it certainly didn’t stand up well to my admittedly biased scrutiny – but in his post-game presser, head coach Mike Tomlin, asked if he had any problem with the hit, replied, “I do not.” Tomlin sits on the NFL Competition Committee, along with his day’s adversary, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, so there may have been light consideration to avoid ruffling feathers on a matter that was both bang bang on the field and thudding in its finality, though as Tomlin proved by seeking out Bengals safety and knee-seeking missile Reggie Nelson after a low-flying open field target removed Le’Veon Bell (and, eventually, the Steelers) from playoff contention, he doesn’t always show restraint holding offending parties accountable for their actions. The NFL altered the acceptable rules of contact to theoretically better protect quarterbacks from low hits after a similar situation resulted in the torn ACL that cost Patriots god among men Tom Brady his 2009 season, so one wonders whether and to what degree the league might investigate further. After a few minutes on the sideline, Ben was finally carted to the locker room, never to return.

**The real story, in a “isn’t this odd?” sort of way, should’ve been the ambitious, arguably excessive pyrotechnic display that caught a small section of turf near the goal line on fire during pregame introductions and caused a 25-minute delay while stadium personnel tried, to little avail, to treat the scorch and vacuum up the debris. In the one camera shot I saw that featured actual burning, the flames looked bluish-green, like something out of an Eighties sword & sorcery movie. Nice omen.

I realize how sour the bunch of grapes I’m currently snacking on must make me sound, and I apologize. It’s tricky sometimes to modulate your fandom in just the right way to render it fit for human consumption. Some moments, on some days, all this really is more than “just a game”. As it does with every high profile injury in the moment, speculation at our sports bar table ran rampant both as to the issue and Ben’s timetable for return. Roethlisberger has such a history not simply of injury but of shaking off injury to return to important games that, on reflex, I mentally earmarked him to start Thursday’s game against the Ravens before common sense could get the better of me. My friend made a good point, that if Ben didn’t play Thursday it would leave him extended time to get right for the following Sunday’s game. Yay, optimism! Because there’s no fun quite like viral fun, I noticed a few commenters on social media and Steelers.com putting those mail order medical degrees to good use, proclaiming Ben’s convalescence a two-week affair, or four, or six, or even eight, depending on how the spirit moved them. ESPN’s Adam Schefter, citing “team sources”, put Roethlisberger’s projected absence at four-six weeks (it really isn’t rocket science) long before the Steelers officially announced the diagnosis as a left MCL sprain. Head coach Mike Tomlin predictably favored conservative time estimates when he was forced to concede one at all. The Steelers looked, if not impotent, then at least fairly dazed with backup QB Michael Vick under center, but were able to parlay a late Will Allen interception into a fourth quarter field goal and hang on from there for the win. Losing this game under these circumstances would’ve been damned near unbearable. Luckily, with its bomber squadron dramatically grounded and the matter very much in question, the Steelers’ young defense seized the initiative and played its second “above the line” game in as many weeks.

That defensive growth will need to continue unabated and be in abundant evidence on Thursday, against a talented but reeling Baltimore Ravens team that set a dubious mark against the Bengals by starting its season 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. The return to the Steelers of ILB Ryan Shazier, who was a one-man wrecking crew the previous week against San Francisco (15 solo tackles, 3 for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble, 1 recovery), isn’t yet a certainty but would be most welcome. Of course, Arizona’s 47-7 thrashing yesterday proves the 49ers aren’t exactly worldbeaters, but these past two games still provide ample cause for optimism Burgh-side at the beginning of a particularly challenging short week. After all, it hasn’t just been Shazier who has cashed in on his explosive potential so far. RE Stephon Tuitt picked up another sack in the Rams game, and LE Cam Heyward remained his intense, disruptive self. The linebacking corps behind them has been stout, stopping the run more often than not, making smart wrap tackles, and generally keeping opponents in front of them. The secondary still completely breaks down a bit too often for my tastes, and FS Mike Mitchell still celebrates every hit he makes (even the ones that yield first downs) like it’s 1/10th of his Super Bowl highlight reel, but the group is playing with noticeably increased focus and grit, and the communication problems that not only plagued but doomed them in week one against New England now seem a vague memory. The Steelers offense was an Italian sports car in the first half, with Roethlisberger hitting every weapon in his arsenal – including a returning Le’Veon Bell and another ho-hum 11 catch, 100+ yard performance from Antonio Brown – with ease and deadly precision, then gutting out the victory after his injury. The Steelers saw their celebrated two-point play proficiency take a hit against the Rams’ hard charging, platinum front, and I can’t imagine it’ll return under Vick. Picking up the slack, much maligned placekicker Josh Scobee did hit both his field goals for once.

With the question of Roethlisberger’s health settled, another remains: What can realistically be expected of Michael Vick? I spent some of my morning commute listening to ESPN Radio eviscerating him as a washed up, patently unreliable turnover machine. Granted, host Mike Greenburg, as a fan of the New York Jets, may be channeling latent rage over just what a disaster Vick was in the catbird seat last year, and, if so, it’s understandable. The bad news is that there is, indeed, absolutely no way that the Michael Vick who so changed and electrified the NFL in his early years exists in this current incarnation as anything but an echo, or a ghost. This, however, goes hand in hand with the good news, which is that in no way does he need to be. This Michael Vick has Antonio Brown to throw to, and Le’Veon Bell out of the backfield, and Heath Miller as an escape valve, and a robust assortment of other weapons, including a returning Martavis Bryant next Sunday. This Michael Vick just has to draw on his experience and his professionalism and manage the game, and if everyone does his job, and our defense continues making strides, we can win. Ben’s loss is heartbreaking, at a particularly inopportune moment, but it does not signal the season’s end, nor should it going forward. Again, we’re probably not seeing another front seven like the Rams threw at us this year, and our offensive firepower cannot be underestimated. “Ride the running game until Ben gets back,” Bell helpfully suggested in the post game scrum, and I think there’s some wisdom in that.

Even given these circumstances, Vegas still slightly favors the Steelers on Thursday night against the Ravens, and it seems a solid 55/45 proposition to me as well, even knowing in full what a defensive pass interference festival Bert Flacco’s arm is capable of unleashing if left unrattled. Pass rush and front seven play, already trending up, will be key. Though I’m not predicting it, it is precisely because of the current circumstances that I think a loss doesn’t define or even seriously damage the team. Pittsburgh heads to the west coast next week, where the Steelers have had historical troubles with jet lag, but it’s for a Monday Night Football tilt in San Diego, meaning extra time possible to travel and/or prepare. Both NFL killer Arizona and AFC North killer Oakland come to Heinz Field, where the homefield advantage isn’t insignificant. The conservative six game stretch the Steelers will be without Roethlisberger may fall 3-3, or even 4-2, but absolutely should not dip below a .500 record. Not with our strengths. If it does, the Steelers have even bigger problems (complacency, inefficiency, bad play across the board) than Roethlisberger to contend with. If it doesn’t, we get our biggest strength back, plus, potentially, injured Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey, at a time when the team is still contending, working together through adversity, and playing above the line football. If it doesn’t, and we are able to steer and steady the ship in Ben’s absence, I definitely like our chances once he returns.

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