So, Thanksgiving happened. My apologies for not sending along official season’s greetings wishes in a more timely, graceful, or obviously heartfelt manner, but real life intervened/interfered, as it does so often. Around these parts, owing in equal measure to outside influences and internal convolution, ideas tend to form and arrive on one of two schedules: preemptive or procrastination. I hope you had the finest and fullest of turkey days and experienced the very blackest of Fridays, that you had sufficient opportunity to bask in the loving glow of your family and/or friends and/or 42” television, and that all participants survived the experience with their limbs, digits, and senses of humor intact. Like most holidays, the extended Thanksgiving stopover requires from me a decent bit of driving to get from central Ohio to east Tennessee and back again. It’s a journey I’ve taken so many times now that it’s practically imprinted in my DNA, and, horror of horrors, the return trip falls, far more often than not, on Sunday afternoon. Nothing has the potential to add figurative hours of teeth-gnashing, blood vessel-popping hilarity to the several actual hours you’ve invested in returning home than listening to Pittsburgh Steeler football in real time, or, more accurately – since you probably don’t live in a certain hundred-mile stretch of Western PA, have a Sirius XM radio subscription, or a smartphone with sufficient battery life to access all 240 minutes of the NFL’s boutique play-by-play-by-pay stream – fumbling up and down the dial in search of ANY football* or listening to the blithering idiots on Fox Sports’ useless Fantasy Wrap-up show laugh like hyenas at their own unquenchable inanity while mentioning the team you care about an average of once per hour, maybe. Even in its absence, Steelers football is the gift that keeps on giving.
*Despite driving through both turnpike West Virginia and southeastern Ohio on these trips, I have never yet come across a Steelers radio broadcast organically. Browns, Bengals, Colts, Titans, Panthers, Lions, Bills, Bears, Giants, and, somehow, frigging Patriots, but never Pittsburgh.
I live in an area where, though uncomfortably popular given the preponderance of orange-clad locals, the Steelers (now 6-5 on the year) are still a decided third wheel when it comes to local coverage, so Sunday’s 4:35pm kick against Seattle on uncontested national TV was something of a unicorn sighting. While setting the recording docket for my prolonged holiday absence (predictably, I returned to a 98% full DVR), I made the executive decision to forego listening to the KDKA Steelers broadcast on Sirius (my driving responsibilities have increased about 30% in the last year not counting periodic trips south, so I get ample use for the money) in favor of burning through the game on DVR as soon as I got home. Armed with and momentarily blissful in my ignorance, I happened to enter my apartment almost precisely as the game was ending in real time. I know this because I received a text from a dear friend and fellow fan, without question about what he’d just witnessed, or perhaps endured. I sighed, looked long enough to verify it was him, then tossed my phone on the kitchen counter. Nevertheless, his comments, left dutifully unread for the next 2.5 hours or so to preserve the spontaneity of “live” football, gnawed at me and cast something of an additional pall over my viewing. I hoped against hope that the Steelers would play above the line across the board in what was arguably their most difficult matchup since the week one “Absentee Bowl” against defending champs New England, but part of me just knew this wouldn’t end up being the case. Indeed, it was not, and my friend – who has his own history of having occasional DVR game viewings partially spoiled by cranky early texts from his father – had some pointed wisdom to impart in its aftermath:
“No way Boykin is worse than the trash we have in our secondary.”
Now, as shots across the bow go, that is a fairly colorful, purposeful one. It is a tribute to the level of explosive mediocrity the Steelers have, against (one presumes) their best efforts, been able to maintain throughout the season that, as specifically worded, that insult need not necessarily even indicate that the team lost on Sunday. Even when the Steelers have won, see, the news has been much more concerned with/enamored by the play of their defensive front seven (or offensive front eleven), leaving aside the odd, “holy crap, can you believe we somehow forced three turnovers?” hosanna. Secondary play has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel throughout the year, or at least since the point, about a quarter of the way through, when its surprising early turnover margin began to dry up and the unit’s “Island of Misfit Toys” identity** morphed, perhaps irrevocably, into “Land of the Lost”. I’ve been loath so far to single out any position group for its particular ineptitude because I thought the defense as a whole was growing together and showing real improvement, but I’m honestly stunned at how comprehensively this unit has been underperforming lately. The starting safeties (Mike Mitchell and Will Allen) do some dependably hard-hitting, decent work, but the lack of focus, attack, or cohesion flanking them is beginning to make the team look not just weak but mortally wounded. Week after week, opposing, verifiably human QBs take indecent advantage of the team’s patently soft coverage and rack up Madden ’16 numbers. This week, the same group that, in an otherwise sweatless victory over Cleveland leading into the bye, made noted behavioral expert Johnny Manziel look like his last name should be Unitas or Elway, worked magic of an even greater potency on once and apparently future wunderkind Russell Wilson, whose gaudy statline (21-30, 345 yards, a career best 5 passing TDs) had the appearance of a 27th birthday present – something sporty, like a new Rolex, plus a choice Hickory Farms gift assortment to get a head start on Christmas. Cloying, widespread annoyance Doug Baldwin is also likely to point to his 145-yard, 3-TD receiving performance here when it comes time to negotiate his next contract. ‘Tis the season.
**The Steeler secondary, for those scoring at home, is comprised of one high-priced veteran (Mike Mitchell, an inveterate braggart with solid football instincts still playing better in Troy Polamalu’s absence than he ever did with him), an overachieving old man (Will Allen, playing decently at an age experts once asserted had doomed Polamalu to fossil-hood), a limited special teams ace (the always hustling Robert Golden), former “safety of the future” now demoted in the present (Shamarko Thomas, who only factored into Sunday’s decision long enough to interfere with a fair catch), and, at the corners, last year’s castoff (Antwon Blake), this year’s castoff (Ross Cockrell), an overachieving middle-ager (William Gay), one high-priced A.W.O.L. (Cortez Allen, who one imagines will officially appear on a milk carton before he ever sniffs Heinz Field again), and one head-scratching bit of shelved trade booty (the aforementioned Brandon Boykin, for whom the Steelers traded a conditional pick during training camp but have since limited to the point that, in conjunction with the chaos onfield, it’s begun to actively mess with the fanbase’s collective head).
The Seahawks leveraged poor secondary play into a particularly demoralizing come from behind victory, 39-30, a West Coast shootout in which their own back four flashed the same kind of opportunistic smarts (four combined interceptions) that once gave Steelers fans cause to dream and dream big. Both teams came out with game plans that they were able to more or less implement. Pittsburgh looked intent on carpet-bombing Seattle into submission, mixing even more long passes into their normal arsenal and working the middle of the field expertly with TE Heath Miller and talented but often overlooked WR3 Markus Wheaton. Seattle looked to tighten the screws defensively and to do everything possible to neutralize all-world WR Antonio Brown. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger looked like a 4-star general for the first half and more, delivering frozen ropes and ICBMs alike with pinpoint accuracy, though few if any to Brown. The Seahawks did play a certain amount of havoc with Brown, a finesse speedster and peerless technician who was effectively shadowed all day by physical and aggressive CB Richard Sherman, often in stifling, double-teaming tandem with fellow Pro Bowler S Earl Thomas. Essentially, Roethlisberger, thus challenged, shifted the focus from his main weapon to his numerous others. The typically underused but intangibly invaluable Miller was near unstoppable until a rib injury forced him from the game just before halftime. With Brown occupied, deep threat Martavis Bryant was given more than his normal game allotment of short touches and long connections, but only came through about 50% of the time. This, unfortunately, is fairly standard for him. He alternated terrific 40-yard receptions with lapses in concentration, delivered on a nimble and nifty sideline end around for his first ever rushing TD but also dropped catchable balls at inopportune times. The prime beneficiary of Brown’s clampdown was Wheaton, a career slot specialist who obliterated his personal record book to the tune of 9 receptions for 201 yards and a TD. Though Seattle escaped with hard-fought victories both tactical and practical, it’s hard to ascribe too much moral superiority to a unit that gave up 538 total yards. They were tough when they needed to be, however, and on this day it was enough.
Of course, the Steelers gave up 436 yards of their own, including 336 through the air in celebration of Russell Wilson’s quinceanera or whatever, but contributing factors of almost every other stripe showed themselves long before Baldwin bounced off Mitchell and slithered out of Antwon Blake’s grasp for the shocking, 80-yard, late fourth quarter backbreaker. ILB Ryan Shazier left the field for what only seems like the eleventh time in as many games, this time under the NFL’s concussion protocol, and the loss of his vaunted speed to spy and pursue couldn’t help but embolden Wilson. The defense flashed impressive team speed and stood tall in the early going, deploying exotic looks and limiting Seattle on third down just enough to break through occasionally. So intent was the offense on attacking Seattle’s jugular through the air that it effectively abandoned any sort of ground game, despite the fact that RB DeAngelo Williams, who also made noise as a pass catcher, demonstrated the potential to at least keep a defense honest on the basis of his paltry eight attempts. Perhaps coach Mike Tomlin sensed which way the wind was blowing, and decided that a full-on track meet was the only way to effectively camouflage his porous secondary. There seemed a tinge of desperation to some of Roethlisberger’s later work, enhanced by earlier missed opportunities and, in general, the unholy cacophony of CenturyLink Field. Neither of Ben’s late interceptions was entirely his fault. One slipped out of his hand and into the paws of a defensive lineman, while Sherman cleared the path toward his first interception of the year by muscling the far smaller Brown down (probably innocently) as soon as the ball hit the air. Roethlisberger was concussed halfway through the fourth by plummeting, Armageddon-sized asteroid Michael Bennett on a roughing the passer call that extended a late field goal drive, and later voluntarily left the game as a precaution***. Seattle’s Jimmy Graham left the game late with a season-ending leg injury, but only after gouging/tormenting the Steelers up the middle the way basically every junior varsity or greater TE has this year.
***Though, tellingly, only after the game was finally out of reach.
When Tomlin, never one to shrink from the risk-to-reward prospect of situational gambling, sent out backup QB Landry Jones on the first play of the second quarter as the holder for a fake field goal attempt, the Seahawks immediately diagnosed and demolished the play. It would prove a pivotal swing in momentum, and if I’d picked that moment, with over thirty minutes of football yet to be played, to read my friend’s message out of context, a small part of me, ragged and out of sorts from marinating in six+ hours of holiday traffic, would’ve probably begged to abandon my post and please just go to bed already. I didn’t, of course, and would like to think I would never have bailed even if thoroughly provoked, but there is, after all, more than one reason I didn’t read that text before firing up the DVR. I’ve felt that sickening feeling of the tide dramatically turning against me and mine on several occasions this year – five, to be precise. If that field goal was tried and converted instead of blown up, the score with only minutes remaining might have seen the Steelers up by one instead of down by two, and who knows how the team would’ve reacted in that situation. On the bright side, reformed Baltimore Ratbird Jacoby Jones broke his first significant kick return for a 38-yard gain, and PK Chris Boswell connected on the three field goals he was permitted to attempt, though his kickoffs were generally awful, low-flying, line drive affairs straight into the gullet of dangerous return man Tyler Lockett. Each little detail made its own impact, some costly, some cosmetic, and some catastrophic, and, in the end, Pittsburgh made just enough mistakes to come out on the losing side. At 6-5 and now firmly displaced from the parity-personified AFC playoff picture, each game moving forward obviously takes on added significance, and will require additional effort, focus, and urgency. (Especially from the secondary.) The potential of losing its captain for what would already make the third time this season is troubling, but beyond that is the near certainty that the greater ship now appears to be taking on water, if not (yet) exactly foundering. Correcting course will require a team full of leaders and level heads, and not simply Cam Heyward muttering post game in visible disgust at the defense’s most recent exposed shortcomings. They’ll all be carrying buckets, and everyone’s very best effort will be required. That means Brandon Boykin, too.