Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Season Preview: Its Mike Tomlin’s Team & Ben Roethlisberger’s Time

Sometimes writing a Steelers season preview poses an extra special challenge. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season preview presents no special challenge because the defining themes of the Steelers 2017 season are obvious:

  • This 2017 Steelers squad is truly Mike Tomlin’s team
  • And it is Ben Roethlisberger’s time

Declaring that the Steelers are “Truly Mike Tomlin’s team” might sound a little strange, given that Tomlin already has 10 years and 103 victories under his belt and given that this site has never abided by the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense (let alone the diarrhea mouthing of Colin Cowherd.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin during the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Kevin Lorenzi, The Times

But a quick look at the roster reveals that aside from Roethlisberger, James Harrison is the only Pittsburgh Steeler to have played for Bill Cowher. In fact, the Steelers roster has come full circle under Mike Tomlin, with his first ever draft pick Lawrence Timmons having played for 10 years before departing for Miami.

But, with Kevin Colbert at his side, Mike Tomlin has taken a Super Bowl capable team and led it to a championship in Super Bowl XLIII and got back to the big dance two years later in Super Bowl XLV. In that time he’s overseen a rebuild of every area on the depth chart and he’s done so without suffering a single losing season.

Ryan Shaizer, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2017 season preview

Mike Tomlin and Ryan Shazier during the Steelers 2015 win over the Oakland Raiders. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via PennLive

Along the way, Mike Tomlin has replaced both his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator, cycled through 4 offensive line coaches, 4 special teams coaches, 3 wide receivers coaches, 2 running backs coaches while adding former players to coach his defensive backs and linebackers.

  • Mike Tomlin’s thumb print falls deep and wide across the organization.

And that’s a good thing, because Mike Tomlin is one of the best at what he does. Mike Tomlin has weathered several stiff tests since winning the Super Bowl, including a 5 game losing streak in 2009, Roethlisberger’s suspension in 2010, a seemingly chronic curse of offensive line injuries for several straight seasons and a 2-6 start in 2013 that ended with a blown call keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs.

  • Keeping your head above water isn’t easy in the NFL, but Mike Tomlin has done it. Now it is time to soar.

For two seasons now, Steelers Nation has salivated at the prospect fielding an offense featuring all four Killer Bees: Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Injuries and suspensions have prevented that. When the Steelers open against the Browns, this will be a reality.

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant catching touchdowns in the Steelers 2014 win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via CBS sports

During Mike Tomlin’s first several years in Pittsburgh, whether it was by design or by happenstance, the Steelers employed a “Plug and Patch” approach to building its offensive line. That worked, for a while, but the Steelers open 2017 with 5 offensive lineman playing on their second contracts.

On defense, the Steelers have methodically rebuilt their roster, done some exercises in trial and error (see Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones), made some mistakes (see Cortez Allen or Shamarko Thomas), and has some plain bad luck (see Senquez Golson).

While some elements remain relatively untested, the front seven of the Steelers defense appears to be rock-solid. And while the secondary still must prove itself, the acquisitions of Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox represent Tomlin’s commitment to talent as opposed to staying within his comfort zone.

  • The lynch pin to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers rebuilding strategy has always revolved around one man: Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers signal caller caused some cardiac arrhythmia last January when he openly mused about retirement. Fans old enough to remember Mark Malone’s 46.4 passer rating as a starter in 1987, fret at the thought of losing a franchise quarterback, but the positive to all of this is that Ben Roethlisberger will likely leave the game and the Steelers on his own terms.

  • You might have to go back to the Kennedy Administration to find another Steelers starting quarterback who could say they did that.

Most fans now take it for granted that Ben Roethlisberger will hang it up after this season, but no one knows. Would another AFC Championship loss or playoff disappointment lead him to conclude it was time to start “Life’s Work?” Should things work out differently, might he decide to follow Jerome Bettis’ lead, and retire with the Lombardi in hand? Or would he return to try to tie Terry Bradshaw?

  • The truth is, Ben himself probably doesn’t even know.
Ike Taylor, Demaryius Thomas, Tim Tebow, Steelers vs Broncos

Demaryius Thomas stiff arms Ike Taylor en route to an 80 overtime touchdown pass in the Broncos 2011 win over the Steelers. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

The window on the first Steelers Super Bowl era slammed shut in a 6-0 loss to the Houston Oilers on a Monday Night Football game in December 1980 that I was far, far too young to stay up and watch. But I remember watching Tim Tebow sear the Steelers secondary in the playoffs and thinking, “This feels like it must have felt in 1980.”

But Ben Rothlisberger hadn’t yet turned 30. The question since that moment has been “Can the Steelers reload before Ben gets too old?” As a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger led a team of veterans in their primes on a 16 game winning streak that ended with a brutal loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

12 years later, Ben would take a team starting 3 rookies on defense, and throwing to wide receivers named Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers on a playoff run that ended in bitter defeat to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

  • In his sophomore year, Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots to lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL.

Now it is time to find out if Roethlisberger can respond in similar fashion at the opposite end of his career.

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Steelers Nation Speaks: Lack of Pass Rush Stymies Steelers Against Patriots

The frustration following the Steelers 36-17 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots has been palpable throughout Steelers Nation. And for good reason. The Steelers fell flat, allowing their conference rival New England Patriots to cement their status as the top dog in this era.

Javon Hargrave, Tom Brady, Javon Hargrave Tom Brady sack, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers AFC Championship

Lack of Steelers pass rush doomed Pittsburgh vs. Patriots, Javon Hargrave’s sack of Tom Brady notwithstanding. Photo Credit: Charles Krupa

But the question our post game poll asked our readers to answer was why? What was the critical flaw that caused the Steelers to fall short? Perhaps that, in and of itself is too limited of a question, as multiple factors were at work.

  • But the objective of this poll, if perhaps imperfectly applied, was to ask readers to make a stand.

Steelers AFC Championship PatriotsThe poll’s results were interesting. For 61% of readers, the Steelers lack of a pass rush and inability to pressure Tom Brady is what doomed Pittsburgh against New England. That’s a fair conclusion. Indeed, if Jim Wexell’s reporting is correct, the Steelers had a rather unorthodox plan to get to Brady, it didn’t work.

Javon Hargrave sacked Brady early when the Steelers were only 3 points down. When Sean Davis got to him next, the Steelers 2016 rookie of the year indulging in nothing more than pure garbage time glory. In between, it seems like the Steelers hardly laid a glove on Brady. Maybe that’s not quite right, but visions of Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier never materialized.

  • Next, 27% of readers opined that the Steelers young defense wasn’t ready.

Again, it’s hard to argue to the contrary. As noted in the post-game report card, whatever play Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin called on the Patriot’s first touchdown certainly didn’t call for Chris Hogan to have half the end zone to himself.

After that, polling dropped to single digits. Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates inability to be Antonio Brown’s number 2 only drew 5% support. The Steelers lack of a Red Zone threat, which admittedly is closely tied to who is their number 2 wide receiver, only clocked in at 3%.

Suprisingly, the fact that the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell so early in the game also only drew 3%. And even a smaller share of our readers, 2% felt that Ben Roethlisberger’s short comings were the decisive factor in this loss.

Final Comment on Poll Results, Questions

With 20/20 hindsight, the question about whether the defense was too young to go toe-to-toe with the New England Patriots is probably the wrong one.

I should have applied the question to the Steelers team as a whole. As Bob Labriola has argued, the Steelers offensive miscues were just as, if not more costly than their defensive failings. To that end, the question about the Steelers Red Zone failings and their wide receiver probably should have been lumped together as one.

  • Even with that said, you our readers have spoken, and it is your view that the Steelers defense was the Achilles heel vs. the Patriots.

And these polls are about giving you your voice. Thanks as always to all of you who took out time to vote.

Final Coverage on 2016 Season to Come

The Pittsburgh Steelers are already moving on from the 2016 season and working on scouting players for the 2017 NFL draft and making the team’s first free agent decisions. That’s exactly as it should be.

  • Steel Curtain Rising will of course provide full coverage of the Steelers moves in free agency along with assessing their draft needs.

But before closing the book on the 2016 we’ll do a final season-ending report card, take a look at some of the season’s defining moments, and provide a full throated “what it all means” end of the season review.

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The Truth Hurts: King Tom Brady Reigns over Pittsburgh in Steelers Patriots Rivalry

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest edition of the Steelers Patriots rivalry (or simply tried to block it out of your mind), the Steelers are home for the rest of the postseason, after suffering a humiliating 36-17 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium this past Sunday night.

  • If the words “humbling” and “embarrassing” sound familiar to you with regards to Pittsburgh’s run-ins with the Patriots over the years, that’s because they’re pretty accurate and descriptive.

After Sunday’s loss, the Steelers are now 2-10 against New England in games in the Tom Brady era. Furthermore, after accruing another  three touchdown passes in the title game, Brady now has 22 to zero interceptions when facing the Steelers in the Mike Tomlin era, which started in 2007.

Steelers Patriots rivalry, Sammie Coates, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Rob Ninkovich, Steelers vs Patriots

Sammie Coates doesn’t stand a chance as 4 Patriots gang-tackle him in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

And if you want to really be sick to your stomach, you may need a bucket after learning that the Steelers’  had zero passes defensed against Tom Brady on Sunday, this despite him dropping back to pass 42 times.

  • If there ever was a team that had another’s number, it’s the Patriots over the Steelers.

Obviously, if you are a die-hard Steelers fan, you were hoping against hope that they’d be able to exorcise the New England demons and walk out of Gillette Stadium with a postseason victory and a trip to Super Bowl LI.

  • Unfortunately, if you  really are a die-hard fan of the Black-and-Gold, you now realize the Patriots are clearly the superior franchise and have been for the past 15 years.

I mean, did Sunday’s loss look any different to you than the debacles that took place at Heinz Field in both January of 2002 and January of 2005, when Pittsburgh fell victim to the Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line?

Going into the game, this one had the feel that it might be different. After all, there were a lot of Steelers-Patriots playoff firsts in this one:

At the end of the day, it might has well have been Kordell Stewart under center handing off to Amos Zereoue and trying to hit Bobby Shaw in the slot, with Lee Flowers and Dewayne Washington tackling receivers as Brady picked apart the Steelers zones.

They seemed all-too familiar, and now, after clinching their seventh trip to the Super Bowl since 2001, it’s clear the Patriots, and not the Steelers, are the standard of this excellents modern era.

Steelers Patriots Rivalry Decidedly One-Sided

Oh sure, the Steelers, with 10 playoff appearances, eight division titles, six AFC title game appearances, three trips to the Super Bowl and two Lombardi Trophies since 2001, have been one of the stars of the NFL in the 21st century. But the Patriots, with 14 AFC East titles, seven trips to the Super Bowl and four Lombardi Trophies over that same time-frame, are rightfully the measuring stick for all NFL franchises.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. While Pittsburgh, with its four Super Bowl victories in six seasons, was the dynasty of dynasties of the 1970s, the Cowboys and Raiders, with their star-studded rosters and combined three Super Bowl titles, certainly carved their own places in NFL lore.

  • The only problem is, it appears that the Patriots’ dynasty, one that seemed destined to end years ago, will continue on for seasons to come.

Bill Belichick, for all his faults with regards to Spygate, is one whale of a head coach. Belichick took over as New England’s coach in 2000, stumbled upon  the greatness of Tom Brady due to injury and soon found a formula for success, one where he has discovered a knack for going after a specific type of player at a specific type of position (can you tell where Wes Welker began and where Julian Edelman ends?) and plugging that player into his system and having success.

Steelers Patriots rivalry, Ryan Clark, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots

Ryan Clark tackles Wes Welker in the Steelers 2008 win over the Bradyless Patriots. Photo Credit: Stephan Savoia, AP via Post-Gazette

Sure, it helps to have Tom Brady at quarterback, but the scary thing about him is, at age 39, he shows no signs of slowing down. I mean, we’re not talking about Peyton Manning, who threw nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions in his last season in 2015; Brady threw 32 touchdowns to only two interceptions in 2016, while only being sacked 15 times in 432 passing attempts.

  • In other words, Brady looks like he can play another five years, and if you’re a Steelers fan who watched him carve their defense up in the AFC Championship game, that has to be kind of chilling.

In-addition to Belichick, Brady, the system the Patriots employ and their franchise-wide commitment to winning, New England has and apparently will continue to benefit from an overall weak AFC East Division.

Comparing Steelers Patriots Rivalry to Steelers Rivalries of Old

If you are old enough to remember the ’70s, you know that while the Steelers dominated the old AFC Central to the tune of seven division titles, they still had to stave off the Browns, Bengals and Oilers, who were determined to build their franchises up in-order to compete. Houston came close, challenging the Steelers two years in a row in the AFC Championship game, while the Bengals swept Pittsburgh in both 1980 and 1981 and actually advanced to Super Bowl XVI, following the ’81 season.

Joe Greene, Dan Pastorini, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers AFC Championship, 1978 AFC Championship

Joe Greene closes in on Dan Pastorini in the 1978 AFC title game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Besides the Patriots, only two teams have won the AFC East since 2001–the Jets in ’02 and the Dolphins in ’08. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since before New England’s run started (1999), the Jets’ last postseason appearance was 2010, while Miami just made it back this year after an eight season absence.

With Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez and a great defense, it looked as if the Jets would become a worth challenger to New England, and they were…for two seasons, before imploding into just another doormat in the division.

  • In other words, nobody in the Patriots’ division appears to be even close to challenging them now or over the next few years.

Say what you will about the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, but they’ve gone about trying to challenge Pittsburgh in the AFC North–particularly Baltimore, who has simply built its franchise to beat the Steelers over the years and with great success.

If you’re New England, and you know you’re all but guaranteed five or six wins within your own division every year, you just have to win another six or seven against the rest of the league in-order to capture no worse than a number two seed and a bye into the second round of the postseason.

  • If you do that every year–New England hasn’t had to play in the Wildcard round since 2009–the odds of getting to the Super Bowl increase that much more.
  • To summarize, the Steelers have been a major player in this era, but the Patriots are clearly the standard for success.

And it doesn’t look like New England’s dominant run either over the NFL or in the Steelers Patriots rivalry will end any time soon.

 

 

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3 Factors that Fueled Steelers 3rd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

The Steelers 9-game winning streak skidded to a thundering halt at Gillette Stadium with Pittsburgh’s 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots. The AFC Championship loss to the Patriots of course ends the 2016 Steelers season, their Super Bowl hopes and perhaps the last best hope of keeping Bill Belichick from breaking Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl record.

  • Steelers Nation is not a pleasant place after a thorough clock cleaning at the hands of their conference rivals.

Ironically enough, 3 root causes fueled the Steelers 3rd AFC Championship loss to the Patriots: A failure to get pressure on Tom Brady, a lack of a playoff-caliber number 2 wide receiver, and a failure to control the line of scrimmage when it counted.

Cobi Hamilton, Logan Ryan, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship,steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Logan Ryan breaks up a pass for Cobi Hamilton in the end zone in the Steelers AFC Champonship loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Tom Brady Dictates Tempo, as Patriots Dance Around Steelers

At 39, Tom Brady remains the best quarterback in the NFL, a status he seized 15 years ago in part by leading the AFC Championship upset against the Steelers at Heinz Field (with all due respect to Drew Bledsoe’s excellent relief efforts.)

  • But if Tom Brady is the greatest of this era, and in the conversation for the greatest of all time, he remains vulnerable.

Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, but if you succeed in getting pressure on him, you can make him look human. New York Giants did it in two Super Bowls. The Denver Broncos did it last year in the AFC Championship. Houston even managed to hang with Brady for a few quarters by following the same formula. In the leadup to the game, the Steelers talked the talk of doing the same.

How well did the Steelers walk the walk?

  • Javon Hargrave forced a 3 and out by sacking Brady with the Patriots holding an 3-0 lead early in the 1st quarter.
  • Sean Davis sacked Brady late in the 3rd quarter when the Patriots held a 33-9 lead

In between, you’d be hard pressed to find a Steeler who breathed on Brady, much less touched him. (For the record, Stephon Tuitt is listed as getting a “QB hit.) It doesn’t take a football genius to predict the results.

Javon Hargrave, Tom Brady, Javon Hargrave sacks Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Sacks were spare in the Steelers latest AFC loss to the Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The New England Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs, Tom Brady threw for almost 400 yards, and Chris Hogan – a former lacrosse player – caught 9 passes for 180 yards. In his post-game video commentary, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette remarked that Bill Belichick observed that the Steelers chose to only 3 rush three defenders most of the night.

If video tape analysis confirms that, then Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler should be questioned as to why they didn’t try to send James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons after Brady more often. When you lose as badly as the Steeler lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, coaches open themselves to such “What iffing.”

  • But even when the Steelers went after Brady, things fell apart.

On Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass to Chris Hogan, the Steelers sent the house. Yet, the Patriots’ line completely picked Pittsburgh’s blitz so perfectly, that even at age 58, Mark Malone could have left the broadcast booth and made that throw. (And yes, it helped that there wasn’t a Steeler within 10 yards of Hogan.)

And that was the story of the night. The Steelers couldn’t and wouldn’t get pressure on Brady. Instead Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler trusted their young secondary to make plays in coverage, and Tom Brady scorched the Steelers secondary.

  • Pittsburgh started off the 2016 season on pace to break the 1988 Steelers defense’s record for ineptitude in pressuring the passer.

They revved up their sack production well enough to earn themselves a spot in the AFC Championship, but unfortunately on the biggest day of the season, the Steelers defense reverted to its early season form.

Wanted: A Playoff Caliber Number 2 Wide Out in Pittsburgh

A little over a year ago, as the Steelers headed to Denver for the divisional playoff game, word was that Sammie Coates was the player to watch in the quest to compensate for Antonio Brown’s absence. Coates played well enough that day, that many coaches had him penciled in as Martavis Bryant’s replacement as soon as news of Byrant’s suspension broke.

  • Who was the target of Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass a bomb down the sidelines on 3rd and 1 the Steelers first series?

Sammie Coates of course.

IF Coates catches that ball, then he puts the Patriots on notice that the Steelers now have a multidimensional, vertical passing game, and he forces them to respect it. Instead, Coates dropped the ball and the Steelers punted.

Coates’ drop isn’t much of a surprise for those following his multiple broken fingers story and/or his latent loss of Ben Roethlisberger’s confidence which writers like Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell have alluded to. It’s telling, however, that the Steelers passing game focused so much on Coates, whom the Steelers targeted 5 times.

  • The Steelers knew they needed someone to stretch the field and divert attention from Antonio Brown.
Eli Rogers, Kyle Van Noy, Eli Rogers fumble AFC Championship game, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Eli Rogers fumbles late in the 3rd quarter in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

During the Steelers 9-game winning streak, Todd Haley has relied on reserve receivers Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton to take heat off of Antonio Brown. And the development of both of those men played a pivotal role in the Steelers late season rally.

  • But ultimately, neither man is ready to be a number 2 wide receiver on a Super Bowl team.

Cobi Hamilton had a number of drops and negated his own touchdown by stepping out of bounds. Eli Rogers made some nice catches, but fumbled the ball away deep in Pittsburgh territory, when New England held a 27 to 9 lead late in the third quarter.

Jesse James played a strong game at tight end, his failure to get into the end zone notwithstanding. He might not be a true number 1 NFL tight end, but he was not a liability on the field. The same could not be said for other Steelers pass catchers not named Antonio Brown or DeAngelo Williams.

On a night when Le’Veon Bell was lost early the Steelers were going to need their passing game to pick up the slack. They weren’t up to the task.

Failure to Control the Line of Scrimmage When It Counted

On the face of it, the Steelers offensive did a stealer job against the Patriots, while the Steelers defensive line did its part against the running game. The Patriots failed to sack Ben Roethlisberger, and only hit him once per ESPN’s statistics. Fair enough. The Steelers line protected its quarterback.

But did anyone else notice the Patriots ability to completely collapse the Steelers offensive line in the Red Zone before the first half ended? DeAngelo Williams lost yards on two consecutive carries. It’s one thing try to ram it in and fail; it is quite another to get smothered in the process.

Jamesy Harrison, LeGarrette Blount, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers 3rd afc championship loss patriots

Jamesy Harrison tackles LeGarrette Blount in Steelers AFC Championship loss to Patriots. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Officially speaking the Steelers run defense “shut LeGarrett Blount down” by holding him to below 50 total yards and keeping his average below 3.

  • But Blount literally needed only 1 carry to break the back of the Steelers defense.

On 1st and 10 at the Steelers 19, LeGarrett Blount ran 18 yards rugby-maul style to the Pittsburgh’s 1 with seemingly the entire Steelers defense hanging on. One play later, and Blount was in the end zone, and the Steelers were staring down an 18-point deficit.

James Harrison argued that the Patriots didn’t dominate the Steelers physically; for the most part that’s true. But these two series provide poignant examples of how the Patriots made critical plays when it counted.

Conclusion? These Steelers Simply Aren’t Ready

Is this a harsh assessment of the Steelers performance? You bet it is. The New England Patriots were yet again superior to the Pittsburgh Steelers in another AFC Championship game. That’s a bitter pill to swallow after 9 straight wins.

  • But even a brutal loss such as this one shouldn’t overshadow the gains the Steelers have made.

All hope looked to be lost when the Dallas Cowboys scored two touchdowns inside the 2-minute warning to give the Steelers their 4th straight loss. Cameron Heyward going on IR prompted this site to declare an Aliens style “Game over!” yet the defense improved during the latter half of the season. And the Steelers spent large portions of the season playing two men who, a year ago would have been charitably projected as their 5th and 6th string wide receivers.

  • At the end of the day, it was good enough to get the Steelers to the AFC Championship, but not through the AFC Championship.

In a city that measures success in Lombardis, the 2016 Steelers weren’t quite ready for a Super Bowl run. Mike Tomlin is wise to remind everyone that the Steelers will arrive at Latrobe next summer starting from zero, just like everyone else in the NFL.

Yes, they will again indeed start at zero next July. But if the Steelers internalize the lessons they learned this season, they will give themselves and excellent chance of not only returning but also winning the AFC Championship and the game that comes after it….

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Rapid Reaction: Patriots Beat Steelers in AFC Championship

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 season came to a crashing halt at Gillette Stadium to the tune of 36-17, as the Patriots beat the Steelers to advance to Super Bowl LI.

Dreams of climbing the Stairway to Seven will have to wait until 2017…. Or longer. Fret all you want about Le’Veon Bell’s injury – it certainly didn’t help – but DeAngelo Williams did fine in relief. No, the rapid reaction to this AFC Championship loss is that the Steelers aren’t ready yet:

All of those factors above, except for perhaps the Steelers lack of a pass rush, could have been predicted, more or less going into the game. At the end of the day, neither Bud Dupree nor James Harrison were terribly effective in rushing from the edges, and the prospect of Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier rushing from up the middle never emerged.

  • But the Steelers inability to dominate the line of scrimmage amounts to an unwelcome surprise.

It would be unfair to say that the Patriots dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the game, but they did control it when it counted, both on offense and on defense. That, as much as anything else, is why New England has a shot at its 5th Super Bowl.

Here is the post-game poll where you can register your thoughts about why the Steelers came up short.

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 01-23-2017 01:08:27
end_date 01-29-2017 20:55:59
Poll Results:
What was the biggest single reason the Steelers lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship?

Unlike game ball polls, we’re not allowing multiple votes – you’ve got to take a stand on this one Steelers Nation. Likewise, we’re not opening the option of write ins, mainly because yours truly is in no mood to deal with internet trolls.

  • However, if you have a reason why you think the Steelers lost to the Patriots that’s not represented in this poll, then please by all means leave a comment and state your case.

At the end of the day, the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers had a strong season, but it did not have a successful season as the Lombardi Trophy will go to either the New England Patriots or the Atlanta Falcons.

The AFC Championship game ended after 11:00 pm here in Buenos Aires. Check back later for our full analysis of the Steelers 3rd AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

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It Is Time for Steelers to Beat Patriots in Playoffs and Climb Stairway to Seven

It is time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to beat the New England Patriots in the playoffs. While a Steelers win at Gillette Stadium won’t bring home another Lombardi, they must execute on this step to make another Super Bowl win a possibility.  When asked about the states in the game, James Harrison spelled out the Steelers situation perfectly:

Everything up to now is a waste if we don’t hold the Lombardi at the end of it. There’s only one successful team at the end of the year. That’s the one holding the Lombardi.

James Harrison’s Lombardi logic is both clear and indisputable. But there’s also an irony in it that raises the stakes for the overall franchise, if not for the men on the field. By beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship, the Steelers would be securing, for another year Chuck Noll’s historical legacy.

James Harrison, Steelers vs. Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Even blatant holding can’t stop James Harrison from strip-sacking the Patriots. Photo Credit: Jim Davis, Boston Globe

Preserving Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl Record

If press questions are any guide, no one on the South Side is focusing on this issue. Good. That’s the way it should be. As Mike Tomlin has stated time and time again, winning a Super Bowl for the sake of winning a Super Bowl remains the franchise’s sole focus.

  • That’s why, prior to Super Bowl XL, Dan Rooney told the team to disregard any “One for the Thumb” talk.

The message an mindset in the Steelers locker room going into the AFC Championship game against the Patriots hasn’t changed. Team’s falter when players, coaches and even front office staff get caught up in chasing records or legacies.

  • Fortunately citizens of Steelers Nation and their scribes don’t suffer those same limits.
Chuck Noll, Chuck Noll vs. Bill Belichick, Chuck Noll Super Bowl

A Steelers win against Patriots in the AFC Championship will preserve a tie for another year. Photo Credit: CBS Sports via Scoopnest

There’s not a lot to discuss here because the math is simple. Chuck Noll has four Super Bowl titles to is name. Bill Belichick, the man Chuck Noll beat in his final game, also has four Super Bowl titles to his name. If the Steelers beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship, then Bill Belichick’s Lombardi count remains frozen at 4 for another year at least.

  • Nietzsche argued that philosophers debated each other through the course of history.

Sports dynasties aren’t so lucky. Time renders comparisons between greats from different eras meaningless, if entertaining. But there are rare occasions when a franchise can defend its historical legacy against a modern threat.

  • Think of Don Shula gathering the ’72 Miami Dolphins for the ’85 Dolphins upset of the ’85 Bears.

The Steelers AFC Championship game against the Patriots presents a similar occasion, and it would be nice to see the team take a step at preserving Chuck Noll’s Lombardi legacy, even for another year. Enough said.

It’s Time for Steelers to Beat Patriots

Since their January 1998 AFC Divisional playoff win over Pete Carroll’s Patriots, the Steelers are 3-10 vs. the Patriots and 0-2 against New England in the playoffs. It is time for Mike Tomlin’s team to take the field at Gillette Stadium and pen a different story for Pittsburgh.

 

Bud Dupree, Tom Brady, Steelers vs. Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, Bud Dupree sacks Tom Brady

Bud Dupree sacks Tom Brady in 2015 opener. Photo Credit: NFL.com, used on Spectrum News

  • The odds makers advise that favoring the Patriots is a smart move.

Given Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s record at home it is hard to argue. But this game also represents several firsts for the Steelers in their history against the Patriots:

  • The Patriots have never played against all 3 Steelers Killer Bees
  • James Harrison will start his first playoff game against the Patriots
  • Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and Stephon Tuitt likewise will play playoff game against the Patriots

Bill Belichick undoubtedly has a plan to neutralize the combined threat of Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. So be it. We already know that Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Cobi Hamilton and/or Jesse James must step up for the Steelers in the Red Zone.

  • Word is the interior of the Patriots line is weak, opening opportunities for Shazier, Timmons and/or Javon Hargrave to get pressure up the middle.

But Belichick knows this and is planning accordingly, just as he’s planning to counter the Steelers counter to beef up protection in the middle by brining Harrison and Bud Dupree on the edges.

  • The time for strategizing and speculation is ending and the moment for execution is about to begin.

Super Bowl windows take an inordinately long time to pry open, only to slam shut in the blink of an eye. Roethlisberger, Harrison, Timmons, William Gay and long snapper Greg Warren are the only Steelers who wear Super Bowl rings. Antonio Brown, Ramon Foster, David Johnson and Maurkice Pouncey are the only other members of the Black and Gold remaining from the Super Bowl XLV team.

  • The window is open for the Steelers to climb the Stair Way to Seven.

Its time for Pittsburgh to seize the opportunity. It’s time for the Steelers to beat the Patriots in the playoffs to win the AFC Championship and head to Super Bowl LI.

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Steelers Need Ben Roethlisberger to Bring “A Game” vs Patriots in AFC Championship

The Steelers AFC Championship show down against the Patriots has drawn a lot of analysis from the pundits.

In addition, Keith Butler has confirmed that the Patriots have always “…tried to find our rookies” – in other words this is no time for Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave or Artie Burns to have stage fright set in.

The Steelers must do all of these things to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship. But together they won’t be enough unless something else happens:

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger Patriots AFC Championship,

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger must bring his “A Game” for Pittsburgh to prevail over Patriots in the AFC Championship. Photo Credit: The Big Lead

While that should be self-evident, the truth is that Ben Roethlisberger has been at his best during the Steelers 2016 playoff run.

Big Ben certainly started strong against the Dolphins, but his interception late in the 2nd quarter could have allowed Miami back into the game. His 4th quarter interception came in garbage time, but nonetheless represented a bad decision by Ben.

The Steelers struggled in the Red Zone. Kansas City has one of the NFL’s best run defenses and the truth is that several of their defenders stepped up to make some pretty impressive plays against the Steelers. But according to Jon Ledyard’s analysis on Steel City Insider, Ben Roethlisberger muffed two throws that he should have made, and erred in checking out of a running play on his only interception of the game.

Ben Roethlisberger Must Thread a Fine Needle in the AFC Championship

Throughout his career, Ben Roethlisberger has shown himself to be a big game quarterback. Michael Wilbon once said that if his life depended on the outcome of a game, he’d rather had Roethlisberger than any other NFL signal caller under center.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger also sometimes tries to do too much by himself.

You could see it in the 2007 playoff loss to the Jaguars, perhaps in Super Bowl XLV (never saw the game, never will) and arguably in the third quarter of the Christmas show down with the Ravens. And therein lies a special challenge for Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC Championship.

Eli Rogers isn’t Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey isn’t Markus Wheaton and, if Cobi Hamilton IS out performing Sammie Coates, Hamilton still lacks Coates athleticism.

And while Jesse James has quietly developed into a legitimate receiving threat and Ladarius Green may suit up, the Ben Roethlisberger is still going to need to do his part to make all of the wide receivers not named Antonio Brown look a little better than they are.

  • Yet, he must accomplish that without trying to do too much.

It is a delicate balance to strike, but if Ben Roethlisberger strikes that balance, then the Pittsburgh Steelers should head to Super Bowl LI.

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Steelers Attitude Towards Patriots Entering AFC Championship Game Healthy, Balanced

By all accounts the Steelers attitude towards the Patriots going into the AFC Championship game is a healthy one, which Steelers fans with long memories know not to take for granted. When asked about the upcoming game Ben Roethlisberger proclaimed the New England Patriots as the NFL’s “Gold standard” and likened the trip to Gillette Stadium as “going up to the lion’s den, the dragon’s lair.”

  • There’s nothing objectively or even subjectively wrong with the Steelers standard bearer’s statements.

But, in Steel City Insider  scribe Jim Wexell’s estimation, “many of the younger Steelers just shrugged” at their leader’s estimation – and there’s nothing wrong with that reaction either. Those might seem to be contradictory positions, but they’re not.

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Steelers Antonio Brown at Gillette Stadium. Photo credit: Getty Images via Sportingnews.com

Steelers Struggle in Patriot’s Shadow

Steelers fans rightly protest national media’s reduction of 00’s to a “Brady battles Manning for NFL dominance” story. That narrative is sexy, but it gives the Steelers a short shift.

  • After all, Pittsburgh doubled Indy’s Lombardi count by the time the decade was done.

Yeah, doubling the Lombardi count…. Unfortunately the Patriots have done the same to the Steelers. And while Super Bowl titles serve as the debates the most important metric, the Patriots’ dominance over Pittsburgh drives far deeper than the Lombardi count.

That’s the simple truth. And this truth hurts. The Patriots began their Super Bowl run by upsetting the Steelers, fair and square at Heinz Field and have shredded the Steelers in all but 3 occasions since then. The tandem of The Chin and Ben Roethlisberger share something in common with Big Ben and the Tomlinator – they’ve both only beaten Tom Brady and Bill Belichick once.

  • And please, spare me the talk of Spygate.

Yes, what Bill Belichick and the Patriots did was wrong, but the Steelers only have themselves to blame for the blocked kicks in ’01. Ditto ’04. If you remember how much of a raw rookie Ben looked like in the ’04 AFC Championship, then you’ll know that Billy B’s illegal signal stealing had nothing to do with the Steelers loss.

Mike Tomlin Sets Tone for a New Generation

If Wexell’s reporting on the Steelers attitude is representative of the Steelers locker room at large, then the younger members of the Steelers are taking their cue from Mike Tomlin. A few weeks back, in responding to Terry Bradshaw, Mike Tomlin hailed Bill Belichick as one of the few coaches worthy of the “great” moniker, so the Steelers head coach is well aware of the Patriot’s perch in the pecking order.

Yet, when challenged that the Steelers have never had to beat the Patriots en route to Super Bowl XL, Super Bowl XLIII or Super Bowl XLV Tomlin defied: “They haven’t had to go through us either, since I’ve been here. So stay tuned.”

  • So, while showing respect to his opponent Mike Tomlin refuses to concede anything.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs. Patriots, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship, steelers attitude towards patriots

Mike Tomlin addresses the media ahead of the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Neither are his players. Nor should they. The Patriot’s record against the Steelers demands respect from any odds maker, but the Patriots have never faced a Steelers team that fielded Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell together. Likewise, James Harrison has never started a playoff game against the Patriots, and New England has never seen Lawrence Timmons or Ryan Shazier on the field in the post-season.

Does that guarantee success? Hardly.

But, as David DeCastro confided in Jim Wexell:

Nothing scares me. We know we can beat ’em, but we have to play really well to do that. So, we have confidence. We know what it takes. It just takes a lot more this week.

You can’t help but think that this is a fundamentally healthy attitude for the Steelers to take into the AFC Championship game. They understand that they’re entering the game as underdogs, yet they retain the quiet confidence that they can win if they execute.

  • Win or lose Sunday evening, credit Mike Tomlin for getting his players to strike a healthy balance.

No one in the Steelers locker room is shuttling off to make a Super Bowl rap video, al la Eric Green 1994, but these Steelers are not heading up to Gillette Stadium in awe of the Patriots. Mentally, the Steelers are where they need to be.

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Wanted in Pittsburgh: Steelers Red Zone Receiver to Step Up in AFC Championship vs. Patriots

Reality unfolds at its own pace.” – Jerry Brown

While this site maintains a strict “No politics” rule there is no better quote and Jerry Brown’s to illustrate the key lesson that the Steelers take from their win over Kansas City to the AFC Championship against New England. And what, pray tell, is that lesson?

  • The Steelers need a Red Zone receiver to step up if they’re to bring Lombardi Number 7 back to Pittsburgh.
Eli Rogers, Steelers red zone receiver, AFC Championship, AFC Divisional playoff, Ron Parker, Steelers vs. Chiefs

Ron Parker tackles Eli Rogers in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP via Honolulu Star-Advertiser

There you have it Steelers Nation. While concern about the need for someone to step up alongside Antonio Brown dates back to Markus Wheaton’s going on injured reserve, this concern more or less faded as the Steelers stacked wins in November and December.

  • Just two weeks ago Steel Curtain Rising declared the Steelers Super Bowl hopes depended on the defense.

That remains true, but two playoff games of Sean Davis breaking up critical passes, Bud Dupree pressuring quarterbacks into throws that Ryan Shazier intercepts, and James Harrison being James Harrison show that the Steelers defense is delivering.

But Pittsburgh need to have Chris Boswell boot them over the Chiefs reveals that the Steelers offense has an issue.

Steelers Tough Between the 20’s

A quick glance at the statistics the Steelers offense amassed in the playoffs against the Chiefs and you can be excused for thinking this game must have been a blow out.

  • Antonio Brown broke the 100 yard mark
  • Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers playoff rushing record. Again.
  • Jesse James caught 5 passes for 83 yards on 6 targets averaging 16.6 yards per carry.
  • The Steelers dominated time of possession to the tune of 34:13

Those numbers are nice, but they’re largely neutered by the Steelers going 0-4 in the Red Zone. To that end, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offers some revealing statistics. While Antonio Brown has scored 14 touchdowns this season, only four have come in the Red Zone, and Brown has only scored 2 Red Zone touchdowns in the last 10 games, including the Immaculate Extension against the Ravens.

  • It says here that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t suddenly forget to look Antonio Brown way in the Red Zone.

But its logical to assume that keeping Brown confined inside the 20 makes efforts to double and triple team Brown more effective. And that’s really where the Steelers are missing another receiving threat.

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Antonio Brown smokes Justin Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. Photo Credit: Medley, USA TODAY Sports via Steel City Insider

Eli Rogers has some on strong late in the season, and has come up with several clutch catches, but his end zone drop against the Chiefs shows that he still must prove he can make the leap from number 3 to number 2 wide receiver in the NFL. Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers only got 1 target a piece and Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates didn’t see Ben Roethlisberger look their way all night.

  • Those statistics reflect the Steelers run-oriented approach in the playoffs thus far than any lack of confidence in those receivers

But it also means that no one is stepping to and demanding that opposing defensive coordinators respect them in the passing game.

Solution to Steelers Red Zone Issues Must Come from Within

Jim Wexell argues “Run the thing when you’ve got them by the throat in these seemingly guaranteed situations.” Fans old enough to remember Chan Gailey calling two goal line pass plays that turned into Kordell Stewart interceptions instead of handing it to Jerome Bettis in the 1997 AFC Championship game would agree.

  • And I have no objections if we saw Roosevelt Nix, Chris Hubbard and the rest of the Big Boy package check into the game in “Whatever and Goal” situations.

But at the end of the day, the Steelers can’t win beat the New England Patriots with a one-dimensional Red Zone offense. Ladarius Green is practicing and that’s positive news, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley know they can’t count on him leaving the concussion protocol.

And that means that someone, be it Eli Rogers, Jesse James, DHB, Cobi Hamilton or even Sammie Coates must step up in the Red Zone.

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Landry Jones Haters Need to Chill – It’s Time for some R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The Steelers loss to the Patriots, frustrating and disappointing as it was, highlighted something that’s been building for a while: Landry Jones critics need to chill. Cue Aretha Franklin because it’s time to give the beleaguered Steelers backup quarterback some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Landry Jones, Steelers vs. Patriots, Landry Jones critics

Landry Jones proved something important against the Patriots. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

What’s this? Didn’t the Patriots loss precisely highlight, as Steeler Addicts suggests, Landry Jone’s deficiencies as a backup?

  • No it doesn’t and these numbers illustrate the point: 14, 3, 21, 24, 7 and 13.

Since entering the league in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger has faced off against Tom Brady 8 times, including the playoffs. The Steelers record in those contests is 2-6. The numbers you see above represent the margin of the Steelers loss in each of those games. Mathematically, they work out to an average of 13 points per game.

  • For those of you taking notes at home, the last week the Steelers lost 27-16 or by 11 points.

So measured purely by point total, the Steelers lose less badly to the Patriots with Landry Jones under center than Ben Roethlisberger. Ah, but the Steelers 16 points was the lowest point total of all the Steelers losses to Tom Brady’s Patriots, save for the ’07 infamous “Anthony Smith Game.” True, but the Steelers offensive output vs. the Patriots in 2010, 2013 and 2015 benefited from some garbage time glory.

  • None of this remotely suggests that the Steelers are better off against the Patriots with Landry Jones than with Ben Roethlisberger.

Trying to argue that would be like trying to say that Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart was a better quarterback than Terry Bradshaw based on passer rating. But if Steelers low point total with Landry Jones under center vs. the Patriots shows us some of his limitations, the fact that the Steelers stayed in the game as long as they did reveals some of his strengths.

What Landry Jones Did Well Against the Patriots

The first thing responsibility of any backup quarterback is to not lose the game for his team. Fans who can remember Kent Graham immediately throwing a pick-six upon entering the 2000 matchup vs. Raiders remember what I’m talking about. Yes, Landry Jones interception in the end zone cost the Steelers, but it was hardly a game-ender.

Landry did a lot of things right against the Patriots including:

  • Protecting the ball – other than the interception, Jones didn’t try to force it
  • Getting rid of the ball – OK, Jones enjoyed EXCELLENT pass protection, but he shares credit for zero sacks
  • Finding receivers – Coverage was tight, but Jones avoided leaning on Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell, hitting
  • Running the two minute drill – Jones played competent, confident football during the final drive of the ½ half

Aside from early interception one very legitimate critique of Landry Jones’ performance vs. the Patriots is on his play at the end of the game, particularly on the Steelers second to last drive when a quick score could have gotten them back into the game. Unquestionably, Jones wasn’t playing with same level of comfort that he’d had at the end of the first half and it showed.

But when you’re playing the New England Patriots, you generally don’t expect to win when you ask your backup quarterback to win the game for you.

Welcome to the New NFL Order of Backup Quarterbacks

While the criticism of Landry Jones late play against the Patriots is legitimate, it also highlights the fact that Landry Jones is a different breed of backup quarterback than has been seen in Pittsburgh for close to two generations.

Bruce Gradkowski had 20 games of starting experience before arriving in Pittsburgh in 2013 and his experience is likely why the Steelers brought him back this summer.

Would the Steelers have been better suited by a ‘94’s Tomzack, ‘08’s Lefwich, ‘10’s Batch or even ‘14’s Gradkowski than Landry Jones late in the Patriots game? Of course they would have, but for whatever reason, ex-starting quarterbacks don’t see second acts as backups in the NFL as much as they used to. The trend began in the early in the 00’s and seems to have picked up steam.

  • What you see is what you get with Landry Jones.

And in real action, when the games count, Landry Jones has shown he can play fairly well as he did vs. the Cardinals and Raiders last year, he’s also capable of looking clueless as he did vs. the Bengals in the playoffs, or he can play as a workman like game manager as he did vs. the Patriots.

And that’s fine. The Steelers didn’t draft Landry Jones to become a franchise quarterback. They drafted Landry Jones to develop into backup quarterback, and Landry Jones has proven he’s capable of fulfilling that role.

So Landry Jones critics should chill, and give him the respect he’s earned.

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