Defining the NFL “end” and “beginning” today is difficult, but as Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong observes, the league’s annual scouting combine signals the beginning of the 2014 cycle.
So as the Pittsburgh Steelers pivot into full 2014 off season mode, its only appropriate to pivot back and take one last look at the year that was 2013 for the Steelers.
Queuing Up for Change – And a Lot of It….
The 2013 off season offered Steelers Nation change and turnover like few before it. Kevin Colbert vowed a roster shakeup after an 8-8 season and delivered as veterans and rookies from the top to bottom of the roster departed.
- The process, however, followed anything but a straight line.
The defections of Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Mundy slammed shut the coffin of the 2008 disaster draft. But Pittsburgh simultaneously launched a 2007 draft reclamation project by resigning Matt Spaeth and William Gay, while getting a compensatory pick for having lost Gay, (who himself was a compensatory pick,) a year earlier.
New England made a run at Manny Sanders. Except they didn’t. Then they actually did. Word was management would let Sanders walk, but then they didn’t. Steelers parted ways with Super Bowl veterans Willie Colon and Max Starks; Colon because he was too oft injured and not suited to cut blocking, and Starks because he wouldn’t accept back up money.
Colon ended up starting 16 games for the Jets, whereas Starks got cut before opening day, got picked by the Rams and cut after 2 games.
- As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
In training camp the pundits in the press were ready to pronounce Le’Veon Bell the next Franco Harris (yes, Ed Bouchette compared his debut’s to Franco’s) before he even had a carry in preseason. In fact, he missed most of preseason with a Lisfranc injury, which were in vogue in Latrobe, with Matt Spaeth getting the Lisfranc fad started act too.
That’s how the Steelers luck ran. Before their fourth game, the Steelers had placed four players on injured reserve – the fourth preseason game that is. (Yes, that’s Nik Embernate, Plaxico Burrres, Nick Williams, DeMarcus Van Dyke. The number goes up if you count undrafted rookie free agents.)
Mike Tomlin shrugged off the 0-4 preseason explaining that that those most responsible would be cut. That culpable crew included Jonathan Dwyer,2012’s rushing leader. For a franchise steeped in stability, changed appeared to be the new watch word.
The off season, however, was only the warm up act.
Getting Sucked into a 2-6 Hole
Steelers Nation remembers the week 1 disaster all too well.
Starting center lost. Back up tackle doing double duty as tight end shifts over to play center. For the first time in his life. All within 8 plays of the season. 3 players lost for the year on opening day. Some guy named Kion Wilson manning the inside linebacker position and, get this, calling the defensive plays.
Shuan Suisham’s status was even in doubt for week 2. He played but the big news was, aside from Dywer’s return, an argument between Antonio Brown and Todd Haley that 40 some cameras failed to catch. The deep catch that everyone did see David Paulson’s, who promptly fumbled, showing what happens when number 4 tight end wears number 2’s clothes.
Dale Lolley’s tweet summarizes week 3 vs. Chicago:
Pass protection became an issue. By the time the Steelers left London at 0-4, it was obvious that Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side was horrendously exposed. So the solution was to take Mike Adams, the Steelers ’12 second round pick who might have been their 1st round pick save for his drug test, and replaced him with Kelvin Beachum, their 2012 7th round pick.
Would you believe that made things better? It did.
- Starting 0-4 also brought in another gear shift – cast offs Stevenson Sylvester and Will Allen both returned to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers came soaring back with a win over the Jets, which was equally satisfying to watch as it was to listen to Bill Cowher sitting in the booth and keeping Phil Simms anti-Steelers sentiments in check.
Victory was not without its costs. David Johnson, the number 3 tight end who began the season as the number 1 tight end one year after he was supposed to have shifted to fullback, was blossoming into a quality number two tight end. Until he torn his ACL, leaving the Steelers with Heath Miller at 75% strength and forcing number 4 tight end David Paulson back into the number two tight end slot.
- Your head spinning yet? It should, but a win vs. the Ravens followed nonetheless and the Steelers showed signs of liftoff.
Except they reached orbit only to get sucked in by Oakland’s Black Hole, as Terrell Prior channeled his inner Kordell Stewart, and Shaun Suisham chose the absolute worst time of the year to hiccup. Twice.
The next week brought New England. And during the third quarter it Pittsburgh feigned going toe-to-toe. Alas, it was a mirage. When it was all over, the Steelers had surrendered the most points in franchise history, (and that includes the 51-0 1989 Cleveland home opener.) Mike Tomlin vowed consequences for anyone mailing it in.
Yet, Tomlin’s tape review revealed no lack of effort. And, in an act of supreme self-confidence, he simply vowed to roll up his sleeves and coach his players to play better.
6-2 Digging Out of The Hole
You know what? It worked.
Beating the Bills might have been ho-hum, but Pittsburgh overcame a 27 point second quarter blitz by Megatron and the Detroit Lions to win the game 37-10, with Will Allen making a game sealing interception after forcing a fumble and leading the team in tackles.
A week later they stomped Cleveland 27-11, with William Gay, signing whose signing so many mocked, leading the way with a strip sack and a pick six.
Thanksgiving Day brought the Steelers to Baltimore, where they lost a heartbreaker on their own merits, yet the big news was the officiating.
You see, helmet-to-helmet hits are the NFL’s big no-no, and for good reason, unless they involve a player leading with the head at a ball carrier player crossing the goal line. Then apparently if the helmet it comes off before the ball cross the goal line, you save a touchdown. Just saying.
- Then there was the Tomlin sidestep, for which he was rightly fined and not so rightly with a possible draft pick to follow.
Yet stepping on the field and almost making contact is far worse that stepping on to the field and making contact, as a Miami coach did the following week vs. Pittsburgh, with the Steelers not even getting the benefit of the free kick they should have had from the penalty that wasn’t called.
For the record, in the NFC Champion game, Jim Harbaugh made contact with an official in the middle of the field, and one of his assistants knocked over on the Seahawks coverage team. Both were sternly warned “not to do it again.” Just saying.
Truth be told, the defense vs. Miami was terrible, and the Steelers earned that loss. Yet if the defense lacked luster vs. the Dolphins, they roared as tigers vs. the Bengals (pun fully intended), completely spanking Cincinnati making them look nothing like a team vying for a first round bye.
Next, the Steelers traveled to Lambeau Field, fighting a battle worthy of Vince Lombardi and Chuck Noll, in a game that saw 5 lead changes, a blocked field goal, a successful fake punt, a pick six, a 66 yard kick return with 1:25 left to play, resulting in a Steelers goal line stand at the 5.
- The Steelers wrapped it up with a win over a Cleveland Browns team that apparently decided to tell the world it had fired its coach 2 hours into the game.
After starting out 0-4 and the 2-6, the Steelers reached the equilibrium 8-8 in the season’s final week. But it wasn’t over. No, there would be no, and could be no neat symmetrical bow-tie knot to end a season like this.
Denouement – Steelers Nation Becomes “Chiefs Nation” for an Afternoon
On every NFL Sunday, 16 teams must lose. And the Steelers seemingly needed 14 or 15 teams to lose to make the playoffs. By the time Pittsburgh dispatched Cleveland, all but one of those teams had lost.
Kansas City had locked its playoff spot and position, San Diego was on the outside looking in. KC gave a rookie quarterback. San Diego started Philip Rivers. KC played its jobbers. San Diego put out its A-Team.
- True to course, all parts involved, stubbornly refused to follow “the script”
Instead of folding, KC fought tooth and nail. They had a chance to win it but missed a field goal. But wait! San Diego had an illegal formation. No matter, the officials missed it. Game went into over time. San Diego calls a fake punt. Ball pops out, KC recovers and returns it to the end zone. But wait – play whistled dead, even though the ball came out and possession changed before the helmet came off.
- The third chance was all San Diego needed to close the deal. They were in the playoffs, the Steelers out.
As Mike Tomlin said, the 2013 Steelers made their own bed. But they never stopped fighting, always kept it interesting and finished the year with the arrow pointing up. Hopefully that provides a foundation for 2014.