Against all Odds the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the playoffs.
That in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment and a testament to the resiliency of entire organization. Within Steelers Nation, fans are quick to cite the example of the 2005 Steelers season, were the team squeaked into the playoffs, won all of its games on the road and ultimately Super Bowl XL.
Blunt Truth Number 1: These aren’t the 2005 Steelers.
The 2005 Steelers featured a talented roster featuring 3 Hall of Famers (Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca), one future Hall of Famer (Ben Roethlisberger) and another Hall of Fame caliber player (Hines Ward.) The roster was deep – remember Brett Keisel wasn’t even starting. And roster was healthy when the playoffs arrived.
The 2021 Steelers roster is way out of its depth in comparison.
Literally. Sure, T.J. Watt and perhaps Minkah Fitzpatrick have legit Hall of Fame potential, but when Tyson Alualu went down, Isaiah Buggs became the primary starter alongside Cam Heyward. The Steelers cut him last week. Which brings us to:
Blunt Truth Number 2: The Kansas City Chiefs are a far more talented team.
It is no secret that Patrick Mahomes is the brightest young quarterback in the game. Often times feels like he’s the football equivalent of the Purple Rose of Cairo – as if Andy Reid walked in on his grandkids playing Madden, and off the screen walked Mahomes who turned around and immedately began putting up Madden like-stats in the real NFL.
Arrowhead Stadium is the one of the NFL’s most difficult venues, and the Chiefs schooled the Steelers there 36-10 two weeks ago in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests. As Mike Tomlin has said. His team has warts. A lot of them.
Does that mean that all hope is lost? No, it does not, because the 2021 Steelers might have a secret weapon.
2021 Steelers Secret Weapon: Belief
After the Steelers win over the Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore Mike Tomlin volunteered the following observation:
Najee sustained an elbow injury; was able to get himself back into the game and make significant plays for us. Pat had an opportunity to get a first down; he came up a little bit short in terms of lacking a little awareness there. We had to punt the ball and he came back and made a significant play. Ray-Ray had an opportunity to secure field goal position in the early portion of overtime; he didn’t. He came back and made a play. The growth and development of these young guys throughout this journey, and the negativity that’s usually associated with growth and development, did not take away from their efforts.
Mike Tomlin is of course commending the efforts of Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Ray-Ray McCloud the latter two who came up short on critical plays only to bounce back big. Tomlin’s praise for his players can often be spare, but he didn’t hold back. Tomlin’s message is clear: He is seeing Iron Sharpen Iron.
That makes this next tweet all the more relevant:
McCloud said the team decided to go into the team facility today rather than take the day off to "start the process." Said they were watching film as a team.
— Dale Lolley (@dlolley_pgh) January 10, 2022
The Steelers, apparently dispensed with the normal “Victory Monday” and went right back to work. The take away is clear: Everyone is counting out the Steelers except themselves.
That’s a good place to be and it conjures memories of another quote.
Bob Labriola supplied it in Steelers Digest during the fall of 1991 as the Chuck Noll’s Steelers were slogged through their ill-fated trek up Walton’s Mountain. A reader asked how 1989 Steelers could shock the world while the 1991 Steelers muddled in mediocrity with essentially the same players.
Labriola pulled no punches arguing, “The 1989 Steelers weren’t really that good. But they won because they believed they were.”
This was blasphemy to a Generation X fan whose faith in the franchise had been vindicated by the 1989 Steelers. How could Labriola say about a team that was a dropped pass and/or a bad snap from the AFC Championship? But I recently watched a full replay of the 1989 Steelers upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome recently and Labriola was right:
- The 1989 Steelers had roster that was average at best.
Sure, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson were Hall of Famers. Greg Lloyd, Merril Hoge, Carnell Lake and others were excellent players. But you don’t see too many people wearing John Rienstra or Derek Hill jerseys at Heinz Field on throwback weekend.
But Labriola was equally right about something else:
- Those boys believed in themselves.
Before the Astrodome upset, Houston had shut out the Steelers in the “House of Pain,”and beat them in the snow at Three Rivers Stadium. Two months before the 1989 Steelers came within a hair of upsetting the Broncos in Mile High, Denver had spanked them 34-7.
Between those contests, Chuck Noll didn’t add any new talent, nor did Tom Moore or Rod Rust rollout any new schemes.
- The 1989 Steelers improved in the interim because they’d learned to believe in themselves.
If the 2021 Steelers upset the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, they will do so for the same reason.