Hits Keep Coming. Mike Munchak Bolts to Broncos. Steelers Promote Shaun Sarrett to Offensive Line Coach

The NFL’s 2019 off season hasn’t even officially started, yet the hits keep coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Denver Broncos passed on signing Mike Munchak as their head coach, Steelers Nation breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Yesterday, that sign became a gasp of desperation as the Broncos named Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach.

The Steelers moved swiftly to fill the position, naming offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett who had formerly served as Munchak’ s assistant. Shaun Sarrett has worked with the Steelers since 2012 as an offensive assistant.

Mike Munchack, Shaun Sarrett, Steelers offensive line coaches

Shaun Sarrett & Mike Munchack at the 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: 247 Pittsburgh

The Munchak Legacy in Pittsburgh

Mike Munchak was easily the highest regarded assistant coach on Mike Tomlin’s staff. And his record shows why.

When Mike Munchak arrived in January 2014, the Steelers offensive line seemed to be in a natural state of chaos. Whether it was because of injuries or ineffectiveness, offensive lineman shuffled in and out of the Steelers lineup from game to game, sometimes even during games themselves.

  • Mike Munchak changed that.

While the Steelers had been moving away from the “Plug and Patch” offensive line philosophy that characterized the early Tomlin era, it was Mike Munchak who ensured that those draft picks paid dividends.

A look at the development of Marcus Gilbert is telling, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik observed shortly before Munchak’ s arrival, “…Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.”

  • While is career has been hobbled by injuries, under Munchak, Marcus Gilbert grew into one of the NFL’s better right tackles.

While Maurkice Pouncey was already flourishing before Munchak arrived and David DeCastro probably would have flourished as well, Mike Munchak’ s real genius showed in his work with players like Kelvin Beachum, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and especially Alejandro Villanueva, who didn’t even play offensive line in college.

Of the men mentioned above, only Beachum got a call on draft day, and then as a 7th round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but all of them have stepped in as starters on the Steelers offensive line and effectively provided protection for Ben Roethlisberger or opened holds for the likes of Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner.

The details behind Mike Munchak’s decision to bolt to the Broncos remain unknown. One of Munchak’ s daughters and grand children live in Denver, and that is why Munchak is so strongly attracted to the Broncos head coaching job. Others have suggested he wishes to escape the Antonio Brown circus.

Regardless, Mike Munchak did a tremendous job in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will miss him.

Don’t Sell Shaun Sarrett Short

While losing Mike Munchak is clearly a blow for the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff, it would be a mistake for Steelers fans to sell Shaun Sarrett short. Mike Tomlin’s decision to fire Jack Bicknell immediately after the 2013 season surprised many. The Steelers 2013 offensive line had started very poorly, but improved by season’s end.

As Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed at the time:

Curiously, the offensive line improved as the season wore on.
After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the Steelers allowed just seven in the final seven games. And the running game that averaged just 3.4 yards in the first 11 games averaged 4.1 yards in the final five games.

Why would Mike Tomlin fire his offensive line coach after seeing such improvement? Because as the 2013 season wore on, the offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett, and not Bicknell, began giving the lineman their individual instruction.

  • If Mike Munchak proved anything during his time in Pittsburgh, it was that he was an excellent teacher.

Shaun Sarrett has been at Mike Munchak’s side as he has mentored and molding one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and it is fair to conclude that Munchak taught Sarrett a thing or two about coaching.

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Mike Tomlin Can’t Win With His Own Super Bowl Talent, Just Bill Cowher’s

You know the old refrain by now. Yes, Mike Tomlin, the Steelers head coach since 2007, has won a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XLIII, following the 2008 season), but he won that Super Bowl with the talent bequeathed to him by Bill Cowher, who passed on to the great network in the sky and became an NFL studio analyst for CBS.

  • You see, Mike Tomlin never has been and never will be a great coach with great game-day abilities.

He simply stepped into the perfect situation with so much stock-piled talent (and let’s not forget about a coaching staff that included Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator), and not only did he auto-pilot Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl in just his second season at the helm, he road the team’s coattails to another Super Bowl appearance two years later.

Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher, Steelers head coaches

Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher. Photo Credit: Antonella Crescimbeni, Post-Gazette

Unfortunately, after Mike Tomlin squeezed every last ounce out of Bill Cowher’s players and coaching staff, he’s been unable to duplicate the same success with his own talent and a coaching staff that he mostly hand-picked. (By the same token, Kevin Colbert is only able to win Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s talent, but that’s another rant.)

You know the old refrain by now. Despite having Super Bowl-level talent–the very best talent in the league, they say–all of these years, Mike Tomlin has wasted the latter portion of Ben Roethlisberger’s career by failing to bring home a seventh, eighth and possibly even a ninth Super Bowl.

Many say that Mike Munchak, the Steelers universally loved and respected offensive line coach, should replace Tomlin as head coach. Why? Look at what he did as head coach of the Titans. Over a three-year period, Munchak some how, some way managed to squeeze 22 wins out of a roster that wasn’t nearly as talented and Super Bowl-capable as the one Mike Tomlin has had to work with since he exploited Bill Cowher’s talent and then hand-picked his own awesome talent.

What about that John Harbaugh, the tough-as-nails head coach of the Ravens? Sure, he’s only made the playoffs twice and has just one postseason win since guiding his team to a Super Bowl victory following the 2012 campaign. But look at the inferior talent Harbaugh has had to work with all these years.

  • Let’s be real, has the Ravens roster been as fully-stocked with Super Bowl talent as Pittsburgh’s?

Of course not. No team in the NFL has been able to assemble the level of talent the Steelers have put together in recent years. As has already been established, Pittsburgh’s roster is really, really talented–the best in the league, they tell me.

All of these other head coaches–Harbaugh, Munchak, heck, even Bill Belichick–have been doing more with less, while Mike Tomlin has–and I simply can’t emphasize this enough–done less (much, much less) with more.

What does this all mean? I think it’s obvious. It means Mike Tomlin has been a fraud all along, and once Bill Cowher’s Super Bowl talent pool ran dry, he was exposed for his coaching incompetence, this despite once again having Super Bowl-level talent.

If Mike Tomlin can’t do more than he’s done with all of this Super Bowl talent, the Rooney family owes it to the fans to find a coach who will step right in and guide this incredible roster–the very best in the NFL, I hear–to a title.

That’s right, the Steelers need a man who can take Mike Tomlin’s players — the very best the league has to offer –and win a Super Bowl with them.

It would be the perfect situation for any head coach to step right into.

 

 

 

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Just Not in the Stars? Fate Simply Wasn’t on 2018 Steelers Side

Philip Rivers drops back to pass. It’s intercepted in the end zone by Joe Haden, what an incredible play by the savvy veteran out of Florida! The way he read River’s eyes and under-cut Keenan Allen‘s route. Simply brilliant!”

That aforementioned play–and the radio description by legendary play-by-play man, Bill Hillgrove–never took place during the Steelers December 2 game loss to  the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

Actually, it sort of almost happened, only, instead of securing an end zone interception that would have all-but secured victory–Pittsburgh led 23-7 with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter–free safety Sean Davis collided with Joe Haden, knocking the football from the veteran corner’s grasps and into the waiting arms of Allen for an easy touchdown.

Keenan Allen touchdown Steelers, Joe Haden, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chargers

Keenan Allen catches a touchdown after Sean Davis KO’s Joe Haden. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, via UPI

While the opening paragraph to this article is fiction, I believe it underscores just how unlucky and unfortunate the Steelers were in 2018, as they finished 9-6-1 and out of the postseason for the first time since 2013.

This isn’t the say the Steelers were just victims in their postseason-less January, something that was facilitated by losing four of their final six games.

  • No, Pittsburgh was its own-worst enemies in many ways.

When you finish -11 in takeaways, when you throw interceptions in the Red Zone, fumble at the goal line and commit egregious penalties at crucial moments, you deserve your share of the blame for your own demise.

But you know how some people say certain teams are destined for a championship season (“It was a team of destiny!”)? I think it’s safe to say the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were ill-fated from the start.

In-fact, had the Steelers actually found a way to make it into the postseason and procure a championship once they got there, a fitting title for their 2018 highlight reel may have been: “Overcoming the Odds.”

It all began in week 1 when All Pro running back Le’Veon Bell decided to make the Browns game in Cleveland his first of 16 absences on the way to a season-long holdout.

James Conner had a great day in his debut as a starting running back, as he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another 60 receiving yards on three catches. But, leading 21-7 midway through the fourth quarter, what were the odds that Le’Veon Bell would have fumbled like James Conner did, a turnover that paved the way for a Browns comeback that ultimately led to a 21-21 final score and, dare I say, Pittsburgh missing the playoffs by one-half game?

Go back a bit further in that Cleveland game, when it appeared that a Steelers punt glanced off of the helmet of a Browns player before Pittsburgh recovered. What were the odds of an official looking at the replay and finding inconclusive evidence of the ball actually touching the helmet? I guess the odds were good enough to award Cleveland the football.

  • Either play goes in Pittsburgh’s favor that day, it’s an easy win.

Speaking of that day, what about the missed field goal in overtime by Chris Boswell that would have won the game even after those two unfortunate fourth quarter plays? It was raining, and I’m sure this caused Boswell to overcompensate, but who could have guessed that this gaffe by the Pro Bowl and now highly-paid kicker would prove to be the catalyst for a season-long slump in-which he missed a total of 11 kicks–six field goals and five extra points?

  • Yes, after bailing Pittsburgh out too many times to count in 2017, two losses and a tie were linked to Chris Boswell misses in 2018.

When you examine the course of the 2018 campaign and see how much untimely missed kicks, red zone and end zone interceptions and Red Zone and end zone fumbles directly affected games, it makes you realize how fine the line is between winning and losing from one season to the next.

And let’s not forget about two penalties that weren’t called against the Chargers–a blatant false-start and a pretty blatant block in the back during a punt return–and how two touchdowns were scored on plays that should have resulted in zero points and poorer field position. And while we’re remembering penalties that should have been called against Los Angeles, let’s not forget the two that shouldn’t have been called against Joe Haden–two pass interference penalties that were simply egregious and led directly to 14 points for the Saints in what ultimately became a season-sealing 31-28 loss on December 23.

If the officials do the right thing–and no, not just do the right thing by the Steelers–on those four plays, Pittsburgh is likely preparing for a playoff game–or even enjoying a bye–at this very moment.

And while we’re not forgetting stuff, let’s not forget about the rib injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the game against the Raiders on a lone sack by a defense that came into the day with 10. The injury forced Ben Roethlisberger to miss 25 minutes of the second half, with the Steelers leading by four points until right before he re-entered.

Given the way Ben Roethlisberger played that day, it’s a safe assumption that Pittsburgh would have won rather comfortably had the rib injury never occurred. Instead, the Steelers suffered yet another inexplicable loss to a really bad Raiders team.

Why was Roethlisberger held out by head coach Mike Tomlin? Was it really due to faulty x-ray equipment in the bowels of Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum? Was it just arrogance on Mike Tomlin’s part where he thought the defense could hold down the fort with Josha Dobbs at quarterback?

Maybe it was just bad luck.

No matter how you break things down, it just wasn’t in the stars for your 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Even The Super Steelers Of The 70’s Needed Help Making The Playoffs From Time To Time

Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.

Sort of, but not really.

It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.

  • Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.

They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.

The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.

OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?

  • I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.

In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.

That’s right. The Super Steelers team featuring Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount needed help making the playoffs.

In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.

While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.

The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.

A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.

  • To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.

You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.

  • You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.

After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.

Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.

It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.

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The LA Chargers Have More of a Legit Incentive to “Help” Steelers Make Playoffs Than You Think

Why would the Los Angeles Chargers, an AFC team with Super Bowl aspirations, want to help the Steelers, a conference foe with that same goal, make the postseason, as the title of this article suggests?

Is it because the Chargers defeated Pittsburgh, 33-30, in a Week 13 match-up at Heinz Field and think they’d be able to prevail again in a postseason rematch?

 

Terrell Edmunds, Keenan Allen, Steelers vs Chargers

Terrell Edmunds fails to stop Keenan Allen on a 2 point conversion. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Could it be because the Ravens, Los Angeles’ opponent this Saturday night, are only a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North and would be a much tougher out in a playoff rematch? 

  • Scenario number one is plausible, that is, of course, if Los Angeles didn’t escape with the aforementioned victory over the Steelers after trailing, 23-7, at halftime.

The theory on scenario number two would also hold water, if not for the fact that Lamar Jackson, a rookie, would start at quarterback for Baltimore in any hypothetical playoff rematch against accomplished veteran Philip Rivers and the Chargers.

  • No, the real reason the Chargers want the Steelers in the playoffs has nothing to do with Pittsburgh and everything to do with Los Angeles.

You see, the Chargers (11-3) are tied with the Chiefs for the top seed in the AFC. Los Angeles and Kansas City also play in the same division–the AFC West–and the runner-up would be relegated to the fifth seed and the very real prospect of not only having to play three postseason games to get to the Super Bowl, but playing all three games away from home.

It’s one thing to get to the final few weeks of the regular season knowing that, because of your record, your playoff journey will begin on Wildcard Weekend, regardless of whether you’re a division winner or just an at large wildcard team–such is the fate for the Steelers (8-5-1) and/or Ravens (8-6). It’s quite another to have a chance at the top seed and all the trapping s that go with it–including homefield advantage and a bye– only to drop all the way down to an at-large wildcard team. 

  • NFL history is littered with really good teams who were victims of playing in the same division as other really good teams.
  • More often than not, the former doesn’t make it to the Super Bowl.

Recent history includes the 2008 Colts, who won their last nine regular season games to finish with a 12-4 mark but lost out on the AFC South title to the Titans before falling to the 8-8 Chargers  in the wildcard round; the 2010 Saints, who finished with an 11-5 regular season record but lost the AFC south to the Falcons and had to travel to Seattle where they lost to a 7-9 Seahawks squad; and, of course, the 2011 Steelers, who finished 12-4 but lost the AFC North title (and a bye) to the Ravens before losing the wildcard game against Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos. 

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With Steelers Playoff Fate In Doubt, Mike Tomlin Faces Toughest Coaching Challenge Of His Career

This hasn’t been a good week for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin following his team’s 24-21 playoff-damaging loss to the 2-10 (now 3-10) Raiders last Sunday at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.

In addition to coming under fire for yet another road loss to a heavy underdog (Pittsburgh was favored by 11.5 points), Mike Tomlin is feeling media, fan and even former player wrath for his coaching decisions in Oakland that included keeping his franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, stationed on the sidelines for the majority of the second half after he sustained bruised ribs late in the second quarter.

  • That’s one of the acute coaching symptoms that has the masses in an uproar this week.

A chronic symptom would be Mike Tomlin’s poor clock-management skills as evidenced by his failure to properly use his timeouts when the Raiders had a first and goal with less than two minutes remaining and were driving for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Then, of course, there’s Mike Tomlin’s inability to rebuild the defense as well as his team’s perceived lack of discipline and preparation.

  • Should Tomlin be fired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers?
  • Should he, at the very least, be placed firmly, and uncomfortably, on the hot seat?

If you’re a long-time detractor of Mike Tomlin, this week has probably been heavenly bliss, considering both questions have been asked ad nauseam. However, if you’re also a long-time supporter of the Steelers, you better hope Mike Tomlin can pull off perhaps his best coaching job over the final three weeks of the regular season.

Because, no matter what you may think of the man, his body of work speaks for itself, and he certainly didn’t amass such a lofty resume — one that includes 11-straight non-losing seasons, six AFC North titles, two AFC championships and a Lombardi trophy — by accident.

In other words, Mike Tomlin may be in a coaching slump these days, but he’s certainly more than capable of coaching his football teams out of funks, something he’s been able to do time and time again. The jury may still be out on 2018, but Tomlin  never lost a football team in the past, not after his franchise quarterback got suspended to start the 2010 season; not after his football team started 0-4 and 2-6 to begin the 2013 season.

  • And that brings me to the next two games, and the huge challenge Mike Tomlin and his charges face.

Losers of three-straight games, the Steelers (7-5-1) may still occupy first place in the AFC North by a half-a-game over the Ravens, but with match-ups against perennial juggernaut New England this week and 2018 buzz-saw New Orleans in Week 16 looming on the horizon, that lead seems tenuous and temporary.

But while Mike Tomlin’s reputation for having his team’s ill-prepared against huge underdogs is well-founded (since Tomlin became the Steelers head coach in 2007, road teams favored by nine points or more are 58-15, with Pittsburgh accounting for five of those losses), his reputation for having his guys ready to play against marquee opponents is also legit.

  • That goes back to never losing a locker room or your football team.

That’s all about knowing how to circle the wagons. That’s all about knowing how to come out swinging when your back is firmly against the wall. That’s all about never blinking in the face of adversity.

  • The Steelers face some serious adversity right now.

How will they respond? At the moment, very few people give Pittsburgh a chance to defeat  New England this week, which is unfortunate since the 2018 version seems vastly inferior to many Patriots teams of yesterday.

The Patriots mystique is a strong one: “Oh no, the Patriots are going to be fighting mad after losing to the Dolphins!” However, the 2018 Patriots are more myth than they are reality. They’re definitely ripe for the picking, and if the Steelers were rolling the way they were in 2017, no doubt you’d have to like their chances.

But with the exception of last season, when they came into the match-up riding an eight-game winning-streak, the Steelers never seem to play New England at the right time. Three years ago, it was as the dreaded road team in the Thursday night regular season kickoff in Week 1.

A year later, the match-up with the Patriots came one week after Ben Roethlisberger suffered a torn meniscus in a game against the Dolphins, thrusting Landry Jones into the starting lineup. And, obviously, this season, the match-up takes place when the Steelers seem to be in an irreversible death spiral.

  • Can the Steelers stop their slide in time and do so by knocking off legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the process?

If they do, this will likely lead to a playoff spot. And if it leads to a playoff spot, Mike Tomlin might finally be worthy of your praise. Will you give it to him?

It doesn’t really matter at this point. What matters is whether or not Mike Tomlin can pull off a coaching performance befitting his coaching resume.

The Steelers 2018 season depends on it.

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Steelers Still Have Shot At AFC’s No. 3 Seed, and That’s A Worthy Prize

The Steelers pretty much blew their last realistic chance at earning one of the AFC’s top seeds and the accompanying bye with their late implosion in a 33-30 loss to the Chargers at Heinz Field on Sunday night.

With a month to go in the season, the Steelers (7-4-1) trail both the Texans (9-3) and Patriots (9-3) in the race for at least the number two seed (I think it’s safe to forget about the top overall seed, what with the Chiefs (10-2) showing no real signs of slowing down).

Pittsburgh is reeling a bit after two-straight defeats, and with the Ravens breathing down their necks, only a half-a-game out of first place in the AFC North, just as many people are worried about the Black and Gold making the playoffs at all, as they are about seeding.

  • As for those worried about seeding, most have already accepted the reality of  the No. 4 seed and a first-round rematch with the Chargers at Heinz Field.

But while a one-and-a-half deficit in the standings with four weeks left is a rather large one to overcome, especially when you’re chasing two teams, it’s not totally impossible when you still have one of those teams remaining on your schedule.

Terrell Edmunds, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Chargers

Terrell Edmunds sacks Philip Rivers in Steelers 2018 loss to Chargers. Photo Credit: Charles LeClarie, USA Today via MSN.com

That team would be New England, who comes to town in less than two weeks for yet another mid-December showdown to determine AFC playoff positioning.

Let’s say both the Steelers and Patriots hold serve this week (with Pittsburgh traveling to Oakland to take on a very bad Raiders team, holding serve is the only acceptable outcome), New England would arrive at Heinz Field with the same one-and-a-half game lead on December 16.

  • If Pittsburgh can do something it hasn’t done in seven years and defeat the Patriots, that would obviously shrink the deficit down to one half of one game.

From that point on, it’s a matter of New England stumbling one more time and the Steelers winning-out in-order to earn that third seed.

You might say, “Big deal. What’s the difference between the third and fourth seed?” To that, I say, “There’s a big difference–at least this season.” Assuming everything stays the same–both the Chiefs and the Texans remain hot and lock up the first and second seed, respectively–the Steelers would take on the sixth seed in the wildcard round–the way things stand now, their opponent could be one of five contenders: the Ravens, Broncos, Titans, Colts or Dolphins.

That’s a heck of a lot more attractive of an option than the prospect of Philip Rivers and Co. riding into town on a lightning bolt of confidence after storming back from a 16-point deficit to win the regular season match-up on December 2.

  • Let the Patriots deal with the those red-hot and very-capable Chargers in the four vs. five wildcard match-up.

Back to the Steelers.

If Pittsburgh handles its business in Round 1, it’s off to Houston to take on the Texans in Round 2. Yeah, sure, you’d have to face Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and a bunch of other hungry Texans just chomping at the bit to make it to their first AFC title game. But while Watson is one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, while T.J. Watts older brother is one of the game’s most feared defenders, while Hopkins would present a match-up nightmare for a secondary that often wakes up in a cold sweat, none of those guys are Tom Brady.

I rest my case.

I’d say a postseason route that includes taking on the last seed in the wildcard round and the Texans in the divisional round seems a lot more manageable than having to deal with a couple of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks….just to make it to the conference championship round.

  • No, a number three seed isn’t nearly as coveted as a bye, but it isn’t chopped liver, either.

As they try to hang on and win their third-straight AFC North title, it would be in the Steelers’ best interest to understand there really is a huge difference between a third seed and a fourth seed when it comes to mapping out a route for Super Bowl LIII.

 

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Steelers Turnover Drought Has Plagued Pittsburgh’s Defense for Years

It’s amazing how everyone can suddenly create a narrative and act like it’s brand-new.

As it pertains to the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers defense and its 12 takeaways through 11 games, why are you surprised?

  • If you’ve been paying attention at all since the start of the 2011 season, you shouldn’t be.

That season, the Steelers, a team that somehow managed to win 12 games, limped into the playoffs with just 15 takeaways. Is it any wonder they limped home after an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the wild-card round?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception, Damion Ratley

Joe Haden intercepts Baker Mayfield in a rare Steelers turnover. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Between 2011-2017, the Steelers averaged 21.5 takeaways a season, a number far-below what a team needs from its defense if it wants to reach the Super Bowl.

  • Historically, the average number of takeaways for Super Bowl champions is just under 37.

Sure, that number may have decreased in recent years, what with spread offenses and rules to help offenses becoming more and more prevalent. But the fact remains you must have an opportunistic defense in-order to go far in the NFL.

So why haven’t the Steelers been able to develop an opportunistic defense, even after transitioning away from Dick LeBeau’s “Old, Slow and it’s over”  veteran defense from the post-Super Bowl days, to Keith Butler‘s current unit that’s younger, faster and much more adept at getting after quarterbacks and sacking them to the turf?

  • And that may be the most confounding development of all.

Back in the latter days of Dick LeBeau’s reign as defensive coordinator, one could legitimately make a case for his unit being past its prime. Why? In addition to failing to take the football away, it could no longer get after the passer. Between 2011-2014, the Steelers averaged around 35 sacks a season, which seemed to go hand-in-hand with the 19 takeaways they averaged.

Historically, a defense that gets after the passer is one that can also take the football away. While it didn’t get discussed much, James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco right before Troy Polamalu made his game-changing interception in the 2008 AFC Championship game.

  • So it was reasonable to assume that once “Blitzburgh” made its return, so would the takeaways.

Unfortunately, despite leading the NFL in sacks a year ago with 56, the Steelers defense only recorded 22 takeaways. The Jaguars, meanwhile, recorded 33 takeaways to go along with their second-best 55 sacks.

So, what was the difference? The difference may lie in a Jacksonville defense that had more splash-play-capable players who were adapt at strip-sacking and ball-hawking.

  • And I truly believe those kinds of abilities are natural and can’t be taught.

All this week, Steelers’ players and coaches have talked about the need to take the football away at a greater rate. Oh yeah? How are they going to do that? A coach may be able to preach stripping the football away from a ball-carrier, but it may require an innate ability to scoop the fumble up before anyone on the opposing team finds it.

A coach can preach ball awareness, but only the truly great defensive backs have the ability and the instinct to make a play on a pass and act like they have just as much of a right to it as the receiver they’re covering.

The Steelers defense should be applauded for the strides it has made this season–it’s giving up an average of just under 23 points a game (really good in today’s NFL) and is

again on pace for 56 sacks. But no matter how much  the coaches may preach it, and no matter how much the players may start to focus on it, it appears Pittsburgh’s defense still lacks–even after all these years–the talent to make it opportunistic.

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Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey – Despite “Losing” Brown Showed Why Still NFL’s Best

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown had five receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers dramatic come-from-behind 20-16 win over the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday.

Just another ordinary day for a living legend of a pass-catcher who is considered by many to be the very best in the NFL at his position. In-fact, if we’re being honest, few were even that impressed with No. 84’s day, as he was deemed the “loser” in the one-on-one battle against Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey–a man who is also considered to be the very best in the league at his position.

Jalen Ramsey certainly frustrated the perennial First-Team All-Pro receiver for most of  the day, limiting him to three receptions on eight targets in-which the two were going head-to-head.

Antonio Brown, Jalen Ramsey, Ramon Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars, Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey

Antonio Brown vs Jalen Ramsey. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

“Losing” seems like such a poor choice of words for a battle in-which Antonio Brown totally schooled Jalen Ramsey at least a few times–including on a double-move early in the game, a play that would have surely gone for a score had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not been having an almost comically incompetent first half against the Jaguars’ stout pass defense.

  • Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions on the day, including two to Ramsey on plays in-which he was covering Brown.

However, better throws  would have likely led to touchdowns on both occasions–and this was especially the case on another play in the first half when Antonio Brown was running free down the seam. Yes, it was a great display of instinct and athleticism when Jalen Ramsey undercut the route and intercepted Roethlisberger’s throw before it could reach Brown. But, the fact of the matter is, a more accurate pass would have led to an easy touchdown for No. 84.

  • Individual battles, aside, Antonio Brown did make two key plays that helped bring the Steelers all the way back.

The first came at the end of the third quarter, two plays after the Jaguars scored a touchdown to take a seemingly insurmountable 16-0 lead.

Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on second down, and his first option appeared to be tight end Vance McDonald, who ran a quick route over the middle. But Vance McDonald was covered, and Ben Roethlisberger decided to hold onto the football, after a quick little pump in his tight end’s direction. As soon as Ben Roethlisberger pumped, a Jaguars safety rushed towards Antonio Brown, who also ran a short route.

But the split-second that the safety jumped up to cover Brown, Antonio Brown instinctively ran by him, down the middle of the field and had nothing but yards and yards of grass surrounding him. Roethlisberger unleashed a bomb that Brown pulled in and took the distance for a 78-yard touchdown that gave Pittsburgh its first points of the day.

  • And with less than a minute remaining and the Steelers trailing, 16-13, Antonio Brown came through yet again.

Facing a third and 10 from the Jacksonville 27, following a drop by running back James Conner that would likely have given the Steelers the game-winning touchdown, the offense needed to come up with something big, or else have to settle for a long field goal attempt from kicker Chris Boswell, who hasn’t been having one of his better seasons.

Fear-not, because despite being covered by Jalen Ramsey, Antonio Brown pulled in a critical pass from Roethlisberger, and not only secured a first down, picked up 25 yards down to the Jaguars’ two-yard line, setting up No. 7’s one-yard dive into the end zone with five second remaining in the game.

  • With 62 receptions for 807 through 10 weeks, Brown is on pace to have one of the least productive years of his career–or so it would seem.

In his first season with Randy Fichtner as his offensive coordinator, Anotnio Brown has 11 touchdowns–including at least one in his past eight games–and is well on his way to smashing his career high of 13. Furthermore, Antoino Brown has continued to have the clutch gene, as Sunday’s heroics, along with his game-winning score against the Bengals, have clearly illustrated.

Let’s face it, teams aren’t going to allow Antonio Brown to dominate statistically this season like he has so many times in the past. And when all is said and done, he might not be anywhere near the league leaders in receptions or yards.

But while Antonio Brown’s statistics have slipped a bit in 2018, his status as the very best wide receiver in the NFL has not.

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If Steelers = “Team Turmoil” Then 26-6 Over 2 Year Period Means Pittsburgh Needs More “Turmoil”

On November 13, 2016, the Steelers lost a last-second heartbreaker to the Cowboys at Heinz Field. The loss was not only heartbreaking, it appeared to be backbreaking, as it left the team at 4-5 and without its defensive leader–defensive end Cam Heyward was lost for the rest of season with a pectoral injury.

It was Pittsburgh’s fourth-straight defeat, one that had many wondering if the services of head coach Mike Tomlin should be retained beyond the 2016 campaign.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you know that period in team history was the darkness before the dawn.

Mike Tomlin, Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward

Mike Tomlin and Cam Heyward on the South Side. Photo Credit: PennLive.come

That loss to Dallas sparked an unexpected turnaround that saw the Steelers win their final seven regular season game to clinch the AFC North. They won two more games in the postseason to advance all the way to the AFC Championship Game against, who else? The Patriots at, where else? Gillette Stadium.

The Steelers nine-game winning-streak came to a resounding halt that afternoon amid a 36-17 defeat that, afterward, had everyone questioning the team’s game-plan and ability to adapt.

Unfortunately, the Steelers were unable to get over the hump again in 2017 and even bowed out of the playoffs a week earlier–a 45-42 loss to the Jaguars in the divisional round.

Despite finishing with a 13-3 regular season record, many again wondered if Mike Tomlin was the man to lead the Steelers organization on the field moving forward. In fact, there were rumors that Pittsburgh’s minority owners were going to demand the 11-year head coach be relieved of his duties after the loss to Jacksonville.

Preposterous? Ridiculous? Idiotic? An overreaction? No doubt all of those things, but those minority owners–if the rumors were indeed true–were reacting no differently than many other people–including the media and the fans–regarding the state of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Winning championships is all the Steelers and their fans are about. It’s expected. It’s demanded. Therefore, when the organization goes a decade without its next Lombardi trophy, people are going to want to get their pound of flesh.

It’s bad enough to not get the job done on the football field, but when it’s believed that one of the reasons is because the head coach has no control over his players off the field, that emboldens folks even more to want change, to demand that heads–especially the one belonging to the head coach–roll.

2017 was perceived by many as an ongoing distraction, with the headliners such as Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and even Tomlin, himself, leading the way. Whether it was a holdout, a Tweet or a cryptic message about early retirement, the Steelers just couldn’t stay away from the 24/7 news-cycle.

  • They were dubbed Team Turmoil by many, a locker room in constant chaos.

That sentiment carried over to this season, as the holdouts, salty interviews about the holdouts, Tweets and other such distractions continued.

  • But were they ever truly distractions? Were the Steelers ever truly a team in turmoil?

I say this because the Steelers have played 32 regular season games since that infamous meltdown against the Cowboys two Novembers ago, and they’ve won 26 of them. That’s right, 26 victories in a 32-game span.

Furthermore, Pittsburgh has a record of 14-1-1 over its last 16 road games. Think about that. Think about all that goes into playing a football game away from home, and how most teams are at an inherent disadvantage. Yet, the Steelers have only suffered one defeat in their last 16 games away from Heinz Field.

Could it be that Tomlin really is sincere about his familiar refrain of not paying attention to outside noise? Could it be that his players follow suit with that line of thinking? Could it be that we, meaning the fans and the media, care more about Tweets and holdouts than do the people truly entrusted with winning football games for the Steelers?

Could it be that the Steelers, while far from perfect, have a more buttoned up operation than we’d like to give them credit for? Could be it that the man in charge of having his team ready to win really is very good at his job?

The NFL is a tough business, and if the Steelers locker room really was one run amok, I doubt they’d be as consistent on the football field as they’ve been the past two seasons. Every team has talent, but it takes so much more than that to win on a regular basis.

If the Steelers really were a team in constant turmoil, we’d know it by the negative results on the football field.

However, the Steelers results have mostly been positive, a sign that things have always been going in the right direction.

 

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