Steelers Thoughts #20 (11/25/21): Wish You were(n’t) here

Pittsburgh Steelers single-game tickets went on sale some time back in May – I refuse to research the exact date, but it was, at any rate, a different time/world – right around the time Americans everywhere were predictably overreacting to the news that widespread vaccine distribution was primed to deliver unto us something approaching normalcy after well over a year of communal plague. We now know how that all played out. Only a little over half of eligible Americans took said vaccine while the remaining late-adopters couched their decisions in terms of personal freedom over public health and safety. Having prioritized my own faith in science and common sense over my knowledge of contrarian human nature, I sat, dumbfounded, and bore witless witness. Whichever side of the fence you reside, the intervening months have surely brought their challenges, so I won’t belabor shopworn arguments any further (except perhaps in an aside).* My own overreaction manifested in perhaps the only way possible for an inveterate concert freak who’d barely left the house in fifteen months. I gobbled up my Primus ticket, my DMB ticket, my Bad Religion ticket, my Faith No (Flipping) More ticket. I honestly showed admirable restraint, to avoid gorging myself as the live music industry awakened en masse from its coma, adrenaline needle protruding from its heaving chest. So of course I bought tickets to watch my beloved Steelers – who you’ll remember were then undefeated in their 2021-22 campaign – in person, on what would surely be a crisp mid-November Sunday afternoon, with two of my best friends in tow. The Detroit Lions were the easiest marks I could find in what was otherwise a muddled minefield of a home schedule. We now know how that all played out.

*Full disclosure – I lost a dear family member to Covid back in October, and, in the wake of that awful day, watched helplessly as another staggered to the brink before she finally, thankfully, pulled back. I therefore have no sense of indifference or ironic detachment about this virus, or what might be done to address/mitigate it. I beg you once more to get vaccinated if you haven’t, to get boosted if you haven’t, and to treat your neighbors with the respect they/we are ALL due, whether or not they care enough to return the favor. Please don’t pretend that danger suddenly doesn’t exist or is somehow allergic to your natural funk. Take these precautions SO you can resume/continue enjoying your life. It costs you nothing. The potential toll on your family, friends, and/or long term health, however, is incalculable. 

Nope, as an illustration of the venerable warning against counting unhatched chickens, the Detroit game will do quite nicely. As an odd inverse counterpoint, however, one in which an already shaken fanbase’s confidence naturally ebbed to subterranean depths before erupting in a frenzy, then crashing again to Earth, so will this past weekend’s tilt with the erstwhile San Diego Chargers and their fluid, unruffled, budding superstar quarterback. If eleven wacky weeks of football have thus far proven anything definitively, it is that ANYBODY in the NFL can beat ANYBODY. While Steelers fans are among the most seasoned and effective frontrunners in the whole league, I sense that 2021 has largely humbled us. Largely. Our weekend in the ‘Burgh, which was memorable in just about every sense of the word, positive and negative, has lingered with me for well over a week now – how we drank and drank in the joys of the downtown Strip District; how, catalyzed by insufficient layering, I shivered that Sunday through five hours (and overtime!) of exposure to the insidious, gradually worsening “wintry mix” smothering the region; how I beamed at being in/around Heinz Field before and during (if not after) the game, immersed with my friends in its history and our shared culture as fans; how I bellowed “First Down!” whenever prompted by the public address announcer (seemingly fewer times in the second half) and screamed myself hoarse in repeated, increasingly desperate attempts to will the Steeler Defense to third and fourth down breakthroughs, only for the game to end in a frustrating tie – and the hangover had not yet lifted for me – or, apparently, the team – by the time “Sunday Night Football” finally rolled around a week later.

The contrast between Sundays was stark and instructive. Unassuming yet impressive, Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field is a blue collar cathedral reflective of its patrons in both body and spirit, nestled at the scenic confluence of three rivers as a perfect picture frame for one of America’s great architectural cityscapes. Operating within its orbit – whether on the ferry ride over from Station Square, lounging amidst snowflakes and caterwauling leaves in the Southern Tier Brewery biergarten, or scoping out and absorbing the Steelers’ humbling “Hall of Honor” exhibit – was a magnificent experience for fans of any vintage, so long as their feet kept moving. Once seated, the weather began beating on us, and the game – in which we were without the services of offensive MVP Ben Roethlisberger and top target Chase Claypool from the jump, with defensive stalwarts T.J. Watt and Joe Haden soon to follow – dampened spirits in congress with and almost direct proportion to the freezing rain. Equal parts Federation Starship and Taj Mahal, Inglewood, California’s billion dollar SoFi Stadium is a monument to conspicuous consumption clearly intended to appeal to the unfulfilled longings and appetite for large, shiny baubles far more traditionally identifiable in the Los Angeles citizenry than enduring loyalty to any professional football team, be it domestic or intrastate. No, for that kind of passion you need the importation/intervention of a far less fickle or tractable fanbase, as evidenced by the remarkably disproportionate number of Terrible Towels twirling Sunday night in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills** – estimated online anywhere from a 50/50 split to a jaw-dropping 70/30 advantage. No, it wasn’t essentially a Steelers home game as has been suggested repeatedly in the press. Chargers fans were just as vociferous the many times the visitors messed up; fan equity just ensured it was that rare game where the crowd was reliably riled up no matter what team was on offense.

**“Steelers fans sure do travel well,” quipped Al Michaels, marking the approximate 150th consecutive away game play-by-play announcer to profess muted amazement at (again) seeing as much or, sometimes, much more black and yellow than native colors populating the stands. I’m simultaneously amused and exasperated by this easy bon mot – again, as predictable as sundown whenever we’re on the road – which springs from the apparent twin beliefs that every Pittsburgh Steelers fan a) resides in Western Pennsylvania and b) embarks on a fresh caravan/pilgrimage eight weekends out of the year to infest opposing stadiums as far as 2,500 miles away…just because. Greater Los Angeles has a population of just under 19 million people. You think, at a minimum, that doesn’t include 50,000 Steeler fans? I’d guesstimate maybe half a dozen folks traveled from Pittsburgh to L.A. for that game…much as we traveled from Central Ohio to Pittsburgh the hellish weekend before. The rest already live there. This just in, geniuses.

If their supporters turned out in full throat and then some, it was in their numbers on the field that the Steelers fell unfortunately short. Week eleven of (the now expanded) eighteen (gulp) would seem to be precisely the point in any season where the logistical realities of life in the NFL start putting the lie to tried and true Mike Tomlinisms like, “the standard is the standard,” and most everywhere you looked Sunday the proof was evident. This is a team that has demonstrated its ability to win before under difficult circumstances, but only when approaching full strength. The margin of error is perilously thin otherwise, whether you happen to be missing your field general, as in the Detroit game, or three of your best four defenders – former Pro Bowlers all, including two secondary lynchpins (CB Joe Haden and S Minkah Fitzpatrick), and, in one Trent Jordan Watt, the League’s highest paid sack artist – as in SoCal. However tempting it may be to issue a blanket statement that all it would take to make the Steelers well is a clean bill of health*** (rising DT Isiahh Loudermilk and starting OG Kevin Dotson were also sidelined at kickoff, followed by Dotson’s line replacement well before halftime), issues of inconsistency – some nagging, some glaring, some infrequent enough to be maddening – linger (and fester) beyond the obvious. The Steelers’ Offensive Line, which has been a work in progress all season, seems to have regressed in its already limited ability to support stud rookie Najee Harris, relegating our running game to the back burner early. Moreover, if the Steelers could not run consistently, the Chargers seemingly could do little but, owing to repeated strikes at the heart of our technically healthy if historically anemic middle linebacking corps.

***Already lost for the year, of course, are versatile DT Tyson Alualu, effectively rendering the Defensive Line a one-man band, and noted Tik Tok star and Juju Smith-Schuster brand ambassador Juju Smith-Schuster, whose absence from the receivers’ room, like him or not, has been hard to dismiss as his somehow even younger, possibly even less mature contemporaries have failed to consistently step up and come through under pressure lo these many weeks without him (Diontae Johnson’s heartbreaking OT fumble against the Lions – which made me and my die hard friends finally give up on exiting Winterfest with a victory – still hurts like hell a week and a half later). “Sir Not Appearing in This Film” remains the sorely missed Stephon Tuitt, who, by this point, has been on Injured Reserve for so long without miraculously crossing over to either the game day roster or a portion of Mike Tomlin’s press conference that, in its eerie sameness week-to-week, doesn’t sound pre-recorded, that he is essentially the Steelers’ equivalent of the gaudy new WWE superstar that Vince invariably waits to debut until the “Royal Rumble,” or the episode of “Raw” following next year’s “Wrestlemania”. Too late in either case.  

The Chargers entered the game on a four-game losing streak, despite above-line talent across many positions and all three phases of the game; the Steelers entered limping yet still unbeaten in their last five, including that infernal tie. In terms of public perception, the teams rode in on respective waves of momentum forged in Opposite-World. Powered by their confident young quarterback, 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, workhorse RB Austin Ekeler on his way to a four-TD career day, and aided to no end by an offensive Steelers defense that, however depleted, ran a gauntlet of appearing ineffective, lost, and overwhelmed on a seeming play-by-play basis, L.A. scored on their first five possessions and didn’t even attempt their first punt until the opening moments of the fourth quarter. Sensing the uphill battle to come, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin opted on his team’s second drive to dial up, as if by telegraph directly to the Chargers coaching staff, an easily stifled fourth down run instead of a comparatively gimme field goal attempt. Black and yellow balloons deflated in a cascading nationwide chorus as the Chargers slashed and burned their way up and down the field while the Steelers struggled to stay alive, trailing 17-10 at halftime and 27-10 at the end of three. Few could’ve suspected the fireworks to come in the game’s final stanza. Buoyed if not entirely elevated by the steady play of bloodless kicker Chris Boswell and a returning Roethlisberger (28-44, 273 YDS, 3 TD, 0 INT), who quietly put together one of his best games of the season, the Steelers parlayed two dramatic turnovers into a new lease on life that instantly turned even the most hardened cynic into the truest of believers. It was an astonishing turn of events.

First, special teams ace Miles Killebrew broke through the line to block his second punt of the year. Soon after, all-world, one-man defense Cameron Heyward stormed the backfield and terrified Herbert into an interception that careened off his facemask and approximately twenty feet into the air before being snagged by a diving Cam Sutton. The team that couldn’t get out of its own way earlier suddenly looked like not just a contender but a closer, trading TDs with the Chargers, before raising them once and then again, Roethlisberger homing in on his tight ends as he had throughout the winning streak, and finally tying the score, unbelievably, at 34 apiece. The away game home crowd was in hysterics, the NBC announce team in admittedly giddy disbelief. The porous Steeler D finally held serve on fourth down and put the offense in position to win, but, stymied by missed timings and a particularly inopportune pass interference no call, they were unable to turn the field position and momentum into anything but a Boswell field goal, ceding possession back to the Chargers with their first lead since the game’s initial possession had made it 3-0 Steelers, but also entirely too much time left on the clock. Calm and collected, Herbert took the field and, in a four-play sequence stretching across two possessions – a 53-yard dagger of a touchdown completion (“No way that happens if Minkah Fitzpatrick is on the field,” offered a helpful Chris Collinsworth with faux solemnity) followed by an incomplete Roethlisberger pass and two devastating successive sacks – the Steelers’ royal coach not only turned back into a pumpkin as midnight struck, it still somehow crushed the door mice underneath. 

What might the takeaways possibly be from such a by turns hair-raising and emotionally deadening defeat? That it is all very well that the standard remains the standard, but that reality sometimes intervenes nonetheless. That Cam Hayward is a beast capable of elevating an undermanned defense through sheer force of will, but that all endorphin spikes inevitably wear off. That Ben Roethlisberger’s very presence on the field at least gives this team a chance to win that his understudies cannot approximate. I still contend that we do not lose that literal sh*tstorm of a game against Detroit if Ben and not Mason Rudolph is under center. Just another thing to blame on Covid…that, and according to Collinsworth, the final Chargers TD that Minkah Fitzpatrick would’ve sussed out if only he hadn’t been in quarantine. Ah, woulda, coulda, shoulda. That the Steelers are a talented group, but lack not just killer instinct but dependable baseline execution when the chips are down. Football is a game of inches, goes the proverb, and a couple of split-second decisions made in a different direction may have made all the difference necessary. That football, chief among all sporting endeavors, is capable of eliciting unparalleled natural highs from the people who really care about their team, and that, win or lose, it’s worth sticking around until the bitter end. What a world of difference between Sundays – the former an exercise in frigid futility that we did not technically lose in spite of heroic efforts to that end on both sides, the latter a roller coaster ride recast as a Hollywood backlot shootout, where the better team won in the end but perhaps – just perhaps – shouldn’t have. 

I don’t believe in moral victories, and as the Steelers steer into the teeth of the upcoming AFC North schedule that will decide their eventual fate, they shouldn’t get caught up in such thoughts either. But I remember well the feeling of walking down the ramps from the upper deck at Heinz Field during that unbearable overtime, hearing the crowd alternately roar and groan through the walls as, exhausted and overwrought, we abandoned ship only to…eventually…tie. Sigh. And I remember the feeling this past Sunday when Killebrew stormed the castle and blocked that punt, when Cam wrecked shop and caused that amazing pick, raising myself up in hope and daring to truly believe the unbelievable for just a moment before plummeting back to Earth again.

Amazing as it seems, I’ll take the latter this time. This one time. The rest – the future – will have to sort itself out.

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