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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With Whipping of the Panthers, Are the Steelers the Contenders We Thought They Were?

To echo head coach Mike Tomlin’s post-game press conference after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 victory over the Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday, no, the Steelers aren’t that good.

No team is that dominant. No team’s offense is so good that it keeps its punter off the field until the fourth quarter–and even then, it was only because the franchise quarterback exited with a 38-point lead.

But while Pittsburgh’s mashing of the Panthers wasn’t a performance we should come to expect week in and week out, it certainly showed what the team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jesse James, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger and Jesse James. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via SI.com

No, the Steelers won’t dominate like that every week — it’s the NFL, after all — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently impressive for the majority of this now five-game winning-streak. Even if you strike Thursday’s historic performance from the record — it was the most points the team had scored in a game since 1984 — the Steelers’ average margin of victory over the previous four games was 13.25 –or nearly two touchdowns.

  • But we’re not going to strike Thursday’s performance from the record, because it’s part of the narrative of the Steelers recent trend upward after a rocky start.

Some have complained about Pittsburgh’s history of starting off slow. However, based on actual facts, that’s simply not true. Starts of 2-1 are more common for Tomlin’s teams than the 1-2-1 beginning to this season. The only common denominator, perhaps, is the quality of football his teams have displayed in September.

In previous years, the Steelers were able to survive the rust that was built up by the low reps — or even no reps –accumulated by the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward during the preseason. This year, they were not able to survive that. In-fact, they looked so bad and disjointed during the first month of the season, many — including yours truly — wondered if they were even a good football team, let alone one capable of competing with the best the AFC had to offer.

  • But maybe we should have had more faith in the Steelers system, in the Mike Tomlin way of doing things. After all, this five-game winning is nothing new.

Actually, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go if it wants to match the nine-game streak of two years ago and the eight-game streak from last season.

Lulls happen to most football teams during the course of a season–the Steelers lost four games in a row in the heart of the 2016 campaign. But when these lulls, these struggles, occur right out of the gate, you wonder if it’s the new reality.

  • Such was the case in September, when Ben Roethlisberger looked off, Antonio Brown looked frustrated, and the defense looked young, confused and “Why is he always open?”

But another thing about Tomlin is he’s very aware that the end of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season doesn’t end the process of finding out who your football team is. The Steelers began the regular season without Bell, a player they, like everyone else, assumed would show up for Week 1.

As you know, Le’Veon Bell had been a vital cog in the Steelers’ offensive machine, dating back to the 2013 season. For him to not be there for the first game had to be a huge curve ball to Randy Fichtner, the new offensive coordinator, as well as the entire Steeler program and way of doing things.

How could the unexpected absence of perhaps your most important skill position player not take a while to recover from?

  • It took some time and some figuring, but Fichtner and Co. adapted.

Speaking of adapting, Roethlisberger had to get used to relying on receivers not named Antonio Brown; this took some time early on, hence the frustration Brown often exhibited on the football field.  But opposing defenses weren’t going to stop double and triple-teaming Brown (they still haven’t), which meant Ben Roethlisberger had to start trusting his other targets.

He did.

  • Take Thursday night, for example, when nine different receivers caught passes.

Regarding offensive cogs, you might say James Conner, the second-year backup running back suddenly thrust into a starting role in Week 1, has morphed into that very thing. With 1,158 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns through nine games, James Conner is every bit the dual-threat running back Bell ever was–and then some.

On the defensive front, Keith Butler had to get used to two new safeties in Sean Davis (he made the switch from strong to free) and Morgan Burnett, the veteran free agent acquisition. Burnett came to Pittsburgh last spring with the expectation that he’d be a vital moving piece in the Steelers’ secondary, someone who could fill many roles in the team’s multiple sub packages. Burnett missed a chunk of time at the beginning of the season and had to be replaced in the lineup by Terrell Edmunds, the first round pick who was clearly taken out of the oven before he was fully cooked.

Sure, the unexpected playing-time will likely benefit Terrell Edmunds in the future — maybe even the present–but that doesn’t mean the early returns weren’t going to be rough.

They were.

  • What about the continued absence of Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker? That wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

It wasn’t.

However, Jon Bostic, Burnett’s fellow free agent acquisition at the inside linebacker spot, has slowly and quietly helped right the Steelers’ defensive ship, providing a veteran presence for a unit that clearly needed it at the tail-end of 2017 when Shazier was lost for the season with his horrific injury.

Back to 2018, and the Steelers current ascension from struggling has-been whose window had closed to dominant contender whose window is still very much open.

  • At 6-2-1, the Steelers clearly have much more work to do, and their last seven games include some of the best teams the NFL has to offer.
  • But Pittsburgh is also one of the best football teams in the NFL right now.

The Steelers are who we thought they were all along–a Super Bowl contender–it just took a while for them to figure some things out.

It appears they have.

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James Conner Dominates in Steelers 33-18 Win Over Browns At Heinz Field

Running back James Conner rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns, as the Steelers quickly shook off their post-bye rust in a 33-18 victory over the Browns Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

  • Cleveland’s first offensive possession resulted in a game’s first points, after an 11-play, 66-yard drive culminated in a 3-yard field goal by Greg Joseph.

Pittsburgh’s offense, meanwhile, netted just seven yards on its first three offensive possessions–including two punts and an interception by Browns’ safety Derrick Kindred. But the Steelers offense wouldn’t stay down for long.

James Conner, Myles Garrett, Steelers vs. Browns

James Conner stiff arms Myles Garrett during 3rd quarter touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.

Following a 41-yard field goal miss from Joseph early in the second quarter that would have given Cleveland a 9-0 lead, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with receiver Antonio Brown on a 43-yard touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh ahead, 7-6.

On Cleveland’s ensuing drive, Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield was intercepted by cornerback Joe Haden at the Pittsburgh 13.

The Steelers offense went back to work on a 16-play, 87-yard drive that ate up 7:12 of game clock and resulted in a second-straight scoring connection from Roethlisberger to Brown–this time for one yard–and the home team took a 14-6 lead into halftime.

The Steelers got the ball to start the second half and looked poised to take control of the football game on an impressive drive into Cleveland territory. However, on second and 10 from the Browns’ 25, Roethlsiberger found running back Stevan Ridley on a short pass to the 22, and Ridley was stripped of the football by cornerback Denzel Ward, who recovered the fumble and returned it to the 29.

The two teams would then exchange punts, and one play after Jordan Berry‘s boot was downed at the Cleveland five-yard line, Browns’ left tackle Desmond Harrison was flagged for holding Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree. Since the infraction took place in the end zone, Pittsburgh was awarded a safety and a 16-6 lead.

But just when it looked as if the home team would seize command of things, there appeared to be great confusion on the ensuing free kick, as the return unit treated it as if it was a punt, allowing the Browns to recover at the Pittsburgh 24.

  • Four plays later, the Browns made it 16-12, thanks to a one-yard hook-up from Mayfield to Antonio Callaway.
  • The Steelers answered right back with a five-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 12-yard touchdown run to make it 23-12.

From there, it was all Pittsburgh, as Conner proved to be a workhorse on the day, and helped put the finishing touches on a thorough victory, with a 22-yard touchdown run that gave the Steelers a 33-12 lead right before the two-minute warning.

  • James Conner averaged 6.1 yards per carry and added another 66 yards on five receptions.
  • As for Ben Roethlisberger, he completed 24 of 36 passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Brown was Pittsburgh’s leading  receiver on the day, totally 74 yards on six receptions and the two touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger.

The win improved the Steelers record to 4-2-1, and they have a road date with the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

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The Steelers’ Offensive Line Is Playing In The Zone Right Now

Through the first four games of the 2018 regular season, it was factual to say that the Steelers highly-touted and highly-decorated offensive line wasn’t performing up to its usual standards.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was often under the proverbial gun and faced more pressure than he probably had become accustomed to in recent years, once the big guys up front became one of the most formidable units in all of football.

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

The Steelers offensive line is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

One month into the season, Roethlisberger had already been sacked nine times, a number that put him on pace for 36 for the year. While such a sack total still wouldn’t have approached the ridiculous number of times Roethlisberger was taken to the turf in the days before the likes of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro came on the scene, it certainly would have far-surpassed the average of 22.75 sacks No. 7 had absorbed per year since 2014.

  • And then there was the ground game, which seemed to go on sabbatical in the three weeks after second-year running back James Conner rushed for 135 yards in a Week 1 tie with the Browns.

After his magnificent performance in Cleveland, Conner combined for a mere 97 rushing yards on 32 carries against the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Ravens, respectively. Sure, you can say the Steelers faced large deficits in two of those games–they fell behind by a combined score of 35-0 in the first quarter of home losses to Kansas City and Baltimore–which necessitated a heavy dose of passing. But the fact of the matter was, Pittsburgh’s hogs got whipped at the line of scrimmage more often than not during that three-week period.

  • But while we’re stating facts, it is worth noting that the Steelers’ offensive line was a bit compromised due to injury over the first month of the season.

Veteran left guard Ramon Foster missed the vast-majority of training camp with a sprained knee and surely wasn’t at full-speed at the start of the regular season. Meanwhile, right tackle Marcus Gilbert and right guard David DeCastro, two of the highest ranked players at their respective positions, missed a combined three games due to injuries.

Like every other portion of the Steelers’ 53-man roster, I guess the offensive linemen–as formidable as they may have been–couldn’t escape the bumps, bruises and lackluster play that was thematic of the first four weeks of the 2018 regular season.

But as we sit here today, those first four weeks seem like a distant memory for the 3-2-1 Steelers, especially for an offensive line that has seemingly taken its play and its reputation to a whole new level.

  • How’s the pass protection been?

In the past two games–both impressive and important victories over the Falcons and Bengals, respectively–Roethlisberger has dropped back to pass a combined 75 times without being sacked once.

  • Forget sacks, he’s barely been touched, while passing for a total of 619 yards and five touchdowns.

How about that ground game?

James Conner has combined for 221 rushing yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks, averaging over 5.5 yards per carry in the process.

If you wish, you can talk about the Falcons’ defense and how it was decimated by injuries prior to its arrival at Heinz Field on October 7. But you can’t say the same thing about a Bengals’ defense that arrived at Paul Brown Stadium this past Sunday equipped with a front-seven that included Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict.

  • The Steelers’ offensive line didn’t just dominate the decimated the past two weeks. It dominated the dominant.

The Steelers’ offensive line is, again, highly-decorated, highly-touted and, as Pouncey showed when he pulled all the way from the center position over to the right edge to throw the key block on Conner’s 26-yard run against the Bengals on Sunday, highly-capable.

The Steelers’ offensive line is also in the zone. If it can stay there for the remainder of the 2018 season, Pittsburgh’s offense–and the entire team–will be pretty hard to dominate.

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