Steelers Thoughts #19 (9/21/20): Mid-Preseason Form

Remember the XFL? Boy, those were the days, weren’t they? Authentic, post-Super Bowl winter football played with some semblance of competence and professionalism. A reasonably cool way for a decompressing sports fan to occupy their Saturday, one you could even admit to watching with a minimum of rationalization necessary. Everything was fresh and new and full of possibility, back before reality blew a Covid-sized hole in the world in mid-February and our collective sanity and security began gushing out as if from a breached dam. The XFL was the football world’s first Coronavirus casualty, followed in no particular order by NFL rookie camp, voluntary camp, team conditioning activities, and capital-T Training camp, the Hall of Fame Game, the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, full college seasons across the board, the Pac 12 season outright, the Big Ten season outright (later redacted, fingers still crossed), both my fantasy football leagues (I’m only the least bit somber about losing one of them), and, finally, the NFL Preseason. Now, the NFL Preseason takes a lot of crap from both fans and sports intelligentsia types, the former of whom are asked to pony up regular season prices for glorified scrimmages in shiny official uniforms (a simple majority of which are destined for framing in the man caves of unnamed undrafted free agents A-Q as a memento of their idyllic cups of coffee in the big leagues) while the latter complain about quality of play and having to cover unfamiliar players with a magnifying glass and a messily annotated scorecard. It’s always made for a ridiculously easy target. 

Which is yet another example of pre-Covid thinking, just one more ingrained habit that should probably be unlearned before we’re all doomed. In a brilliant bit of misdirection, the NFL is in fact currently engaged in playing its preseason, which has been cunningly disguised as its regular season, and it’s been a mixed bag so far. The play has been far better because the players are far better – think the first half of Preseason game three for the proper analogue – but everybody has plenty of rust to shake off. Because I can be a football maniac when properly deprived, I’ve devoured the young season so far, found it consistently diverting and occasionally thrilling, and, well, I’m always thrilled when the Pittsburgh Steelers win. The last few years have been tricky in that respect, with the albatrosses of first the departed Le’Veon Bell and, then, Antonio Brown hanging about the franchise’s collective neck, whipsaw, whiplash-inducing sea changes on field, devastating injuries, and reversals of fortunes to the point that in a season where the Steelers went from first in Red Zone efficiency to dead last, a not statistically insignificant portion of the fanbase was actively rallying behind, pumping up, and even unduly lionizing an undrafted, undistinguished rookie quarterback nicknamed “Duck”. Because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Living in Central Ohio, I can’t always count on being able to watch the Steelers play, so these first two weeks of serendipitous national broadcasts, which have seen the team fast approaching mid-Preseason form right on schedule, have been pretty sweet. 

Much the same way you could squint your eyes and convince yourself that watching the XFL was like watching honest-to-goodness professional football, the 2020 NFL season, despite its preparation deficit and general greenery, has engaged in its own sleight of hand, routinely serving up the kind of defense-optional shootouts you might see on a Big 12 Saturday, or pitched battles you’re supposed to see in January. Rarely have even the 2-0 teams seemed all that dominant – Ravens and Seahawks perhaps excluded, Steelers most certainly not. The players and staffs have done what they could with what they had, and are to be commended. Where the difference has been stark is in the League’s overall level of health, sorely compromised by the lack of a traditional Preseason, where much needed reps accumulate, teams tend to grow closer together, and the most egregious mistakes can be safely made before the games count. The 49ers are now a used car lot, having lost QB Jimmy Garoppolo, DE Nick Bosa, and RB Raheem Mostert just yesterday. Giants RB Saquon Barkley, who the Steelers keyed on in their Monday Night Football opener and held to six yards rushing, now looks like an apocalyptic fantasy bust after tearing one of his cruciate ligaments. In lower profile but still consequential news, the Steelers lost starting RT Zach Banner for the season and top OL backup Stefan Wisniewski on consecutive plays last Monday. Broncos RB Philip Lindsay, last seen shredding Pittsburgh like cole slaw, started Sunday on the shelf. At Heinz Field and across the league, many more would join him by day’s end.

The Denver Broncos arrived for the Steelers’ home opener down Lindsay and several other men, but in no mood to make excuses. They almost didn’t need to. After a picture perfect first half, the game dramatically shifted in its thirty-third minute and was in doubt for almost every one thereafter. Like MacArthur returning to the Philippines in WW2, now-bionic quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s steady offensive stewardship has been the story of Pittsburgh’s season so far, and he largely continued exploring the tasty groove he found on opening night in New York, particularly in a beautiful arcing pass delivered directly into the waiting arms of stud rookie Chase Claypool for a sideline-tickling, 82-yard touchdown. Second-year Broncos signal-caller Drew Lock was taken out of commission early on by a thudding Bud Dupree strip sack, and both of his top targets, Courtland Sutton and Alabama rookie Jerry Jeudy, spent their own extended time on the trainer’s table, yet the Broncos got off the mat repeatedly, awaiting their moment to strike back. That moment arrived early in the second half, as Roethlisberger, gifted a secure passing pocket from which he could have played a game of Sudoku, finally floated an ill-advised wobbler into double coverage for a timely, entirely predictable interception. “If one has constructive criticism of Ben Roethlisberger,” offered CBS analyst Rich Gannon diplomatically, “it’s that he has so much belief in his ability to make a play that he has a tough time giving up.”* As if we fans hadn’t spent the better part of sixteen seasons (and counting) already witnessing this minor personality crisis play out in real time.

*This actually counts as a refreshingly dispassionate critical description of Roethlisberger, who, depending on whose voice among the cacophony of talking heads from print, pre-season TV, and comment sections you might favor, spent the offseason being described variously as a conquering hero – a Comeback Player of the Year in waiting – or a selfish, delusional, elderly hack. I get that some folks are sick of him, and I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but there ideally should be some kind of middle ground between legitimate messiah and lame racehorse begging to be shot.

The fact that the Steelers defense held the suddenly hard-charging Broncos to a field goal despite a subsequent 1st and Goal from the 4 is wonderful but beside the point. The momentum had by then appreciably shifted. My patience thins as I listen to these commentators consistently praise the Steelers defense for reasons that don’t always (or at least don’t yet) comport with reality, then express slaw-jawed surprise when Broncos backup Jeff Driskell gouges the secondary for an easy follow-up TD. Our Steelers are an incredibly talented defense, brimming with potential, but have proven nothing so far in 2020 except, thankfully, their ability to reach the quarterback. The Nelson-Haden-Fitzpatrick-Edmunds battery is surely the team’s most talented defensive backfield since Super Bowl 45, but Pittsburgh still lives and dies with its front seven and the relentless pressure they provide, from which turnovers (the Steelers had two timely ones against the Broncos, plus a late safety) are a natural byproduct. This defense single-handedly made the Ben-less, “Lame ‘Duck’” Steelers of 2019 an unlikely playoff contender, but in the end there was just too much resistance to overcome. Things have changed since then, both subtle and unsubtle. Former first round journeyman Tyson Alualu has replaced fat paid Javon Hargrave as starting DT and seems a natural fit. FS Minkah Fitzpatrick no longer sneaks up on offenses, who now summarily refuse to let him roam center field and instead force him to make tackles nearer the line. Roethlisberger’s return from season-ending injury has, by coordinator Keith Butler’s own admission, made his defense more confident, though sometimes the end result is far sloppier than it should be.** The sky’s the limit for their 2020, but there’s no call yet to anoint them as anything.

**I watched Steelers/Broncos twice in the process of writing this recap, and the sometimes ragged defensive effort on display was a reliable source of consternation, no matter how splashy the big plays they produced might’ve been. The invaluable Bob Labriola of steelers.com is a professional journalist who is able to quantify all the little things you tend to notice unconsciously in a way guaranteed to intensify your agita. Per Bob, whose regular “Asked and Answered” column is both informative and a consistent delight, the defense was responsible for six of the Steelers’ ten penalties, including a roughing the passer call and four pass interferences. Of the six automatic first downs generated by these lapses, four occurred on third down, extending drives. Sometimes you manufacture momentum, and sometimes the other guy gives you an extra push. As a lover of defense, I’m rather fond of this bunch and how they play. I want them to gain focus going forward, not lose aggression. 

Not that Bud was trying to injure him – gravity and giant men generally do not pair well – but it’s a fair question whether the Broncos actually might have fared as well had their second-year signal caller not been lost for the game in the first quarter. Ben, for his part, played fairly immaculate football in the wake of his one error, completing his next 14 of 15 passes – the last of which was a brilliant surface-to-air missile strike Diontae Johnson caught amidst end zone traffic – on his way to a 29-41, 311-yard, 2 touchdown line that saw him pass draft mate Eli Manning for 7th and 8th place on the all time passing yards and touchdowns lists respectively. Fresh from a year in which the depleted offense could never get on track, the Steelers look loaded for bear in 2020. Johnson continues to make strides as a potentially dynamic receiver – and even better punt returner – through drops remain a puzzling issue. Free agent acquisition Eric Ebron seems sure to develop into a serious weapon as he acclimates to Randy Fichtner’s scheme. Following an injury-touched week one, it was James Conner’s turn to serve as the backfield workhorse, including a terrific 59-yard gallop that effectively sealed the game late. Both teams made their share of mistakes, but also made much of their own luck, and the Steelers, despite their imperfections – Benny Snell ran hard as always but prolonged the drama with an inexcusable Q4 fumble; a dumb penalty negated a Johnson punt return touchdown – were left standing at the end. 

Despite precedent, I didn’t write about the 2020 Steelers until now due to a combination of factors over which they had no input or control. I surely missed them while they were away. I also feared this day would never come. Where the team goes from here – during this surpassingly weird campaign in which seats are empty, crowd noise is fake, injuries are already legion, and the preseason actually counts – is far from a settled matter. Where it might go eventually is beyond exciting, and depends on how much the team applies what it has to have learned from a spotty effort like Sunday’s. Like him or not, Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, with a repaired shoulder and renewed sense of purpose to compliment his well-honed instincts, leadership bona fides, and game-changing abilities. His explosive receiver room has stratospheric potential and seems to be playing with a chip on its collective shoulder. Nine different players caught passes against Denver, while five defenders from across all three layers (line, backers, secondary) combined for seven total sacks. That’s a nice foundation to build upon. As with any preseason, literal or figurative, the specter of injuries remains a persistent worry – Offensive Line depth is yet another work in progress, though cheers are due Chuks Okorafor and rookie Kevin Dotson for filling in so capably – but the future looks bright. The team has both serious room to grow and need to improve, but, given the circumstances, extra urgency and less margin for error. Good thing it has so far survived what feels like an abbreviated preseason with two victories that actually count for once. Houston awaits, and with it a Watt family reunion. Everyone will be playing for keeps.

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