When you follow a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers on a consistent basis, it’s kind of easy to fall into a false sense of security regarding the capabilities of most players on the roster–and that includes the backups.
For example, reserve inside linebacker Vince Williams was absolutely dominant in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets. Williams combined for 25 tackles and two sacks, and as you watched him perform so well, you surely didn’t miss Ryan Shazier, the guy he replaced in the lineup.
Speaking of the Jets game, Chris Hubbard went the entire way at right tackle, thanks to injuries to starter Marcus Gilbert and backup swing tackle Ryan Harris a week earlier vs. Kansas City, and did more than yeoman’s work, as part of an offensive line that hardly allowed a scratch on superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In the game against the Jets, star defensive end Cameron Heyward left with a hamstring injury and never returned.
Maybe you didn’t notice Heyward’s absence, as Pittsburgh scored 17-unanswered second half points to run away with a 31-13 victory.
- But here the thing about injuries: They tend to have an accumulative effect.
As Vince Williams was flying around Heinz Field for two weeks, making tackle after tackle and playing like a man possessed, maybe you didn’t miss Shazier because:
a) Heyward was such a dominant presence along the defensive line, he gave Williams plenty of room to roam or
b) you simply didn’t know what you were missing.
For as annoying as Ryan Shazier’s injury history has been over the duration of his two-plus year career with the Steelers, the reality is, nobody on Keith Butler‘s defense is capable of being the difference-maker he is.
- When he plays, Ryan Shazier makes things happen, whether it be a tackle for loss, a forced fumble or a key interception (Just ask Jeremy Hill of the Bengals).
Vince Williams can provide his share of tackles–even tackles for loss–but he has yet to prove he can be the impact player Shazier is.
As for Cam Heyward, his absence was a little harder to miss, what with such a drop-off in talent on the defensive line, due to the journeyman pedigree of backup Ricardo Mathews and the rookie pedigree of the otherwise utlra-talented Javon Hargrave.
Along the offensive line, while he doesn’t get the hype of a Maurkice Pouncey or David DeCastro, and while his story may not be as inspirational as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva‘s, fact is, Marcus Gilbert is one of the premiere right tackles in the NFL.
Gilbert may not have been everyone’s cup of tea over the first few years, when he was having hiccups that involved accidentally injuring his own teammates, but through hard work and commitment, he turned himself into a valuable member of the offensive line.
Was Marcus Gilbert an indispensable member of the line? It sure didn’t seem that way after the March signing of the veteran Ryan Harris, who started in Super Bowl 50 a year ago and began the regular season as a backup behind both Gilbert and Villanueva.
Unfortunately, after holding his own against the Jets, Chris Hubbard had a whale of a time trying to stop the Dolphins edge-rushers that included accomplished veteran linebacker Cameron Wake, as Ben Roethlisberger was harassed most of the afternoon and sacked twice.
- Back to the Steelers defense.
Sunday’s game may have been physical, but the unit that appeared to be on the receiving end of most of the beatings was a Steelers defense that barely laid a hand on Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill and allowed an astounding 222 yards rushing.
You don’t have to be a football guru to see that Sunday’s game against the Dolphins was lost at the line of scrimmage, and Pittsburgh was missing a handful of key contributors on both sides of the ball.
Head coach Mike Tomlin’s “Next Man Up” mantra is rather appealing, inspirational and catchy. But, like most backups in the NFL, the more they play, the more they get exposed.
- And the more backups that are in at any given time, the more a team may be weakened and exposed.
This coming Sunday, when the Steelers take on the Patriots at Heinz Field with Landry Jones as their starting quarterback, you may unfortunately get to witness the immediate effect of an injury to the most important player.
But in Miami on Sunday, you witnessed the accumulative effect of several injuries to a handful of valuable players.