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Pittsburgh Steelers: Coming Back with a Vengeance
The 2014 season is over for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the foundation has been built for a promising future
There’s always next year… Oh the phrase for nearly every sports fan under the sun, specifically the NFL fans where in any given year a team could make a legitimate run for the big game. Only one team can win the super bowl each year—so thirty-one teams will always be disappointed. Still, if you’re a fan of the Raiders or Jaguars the whole “there’s always next year” idiom is more of a joke between depressed bar buddies whose stomachs’ are filled with bud light and whose hearts’ are filled with despair. Meanwhile if you’re a Packers or Patriots fan, your team is always in the thick of the race and next year could easily mark the year where your team makes a deep playoff run and wins it all. But what about Pittsburgh? After a disappointing 8-8 season in 2012, “next year” was an equality mediocre 8-8 campaign where the Steelers players and Steelers ticket holders were doing the same exact thing, yet again watching January football from the comfort of their couches. The 2013 version of “there’s always next year” was just as frightening and confusing as the last. Some called for the heads of the coaches. Some claimed the need to cut the old and slow. But the most professional and consistent franchise in sports didn't flinch. The Black and Gold might be black and blue after their heavyweight bout with their arch rivals, but there is a lot to gain from this year. The 2014 crusade was not only a giant leap forward from anything the Steel City has given the fans since the Super Bowl run of 2010-11, it was also a historically successful season and a stepping stone to what could be a truly dominate team over the next half decade.
One thing is for certain in the Steelers 17-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, they missed injured super star Le’Veon Bell. The league’s second leading rusher and best all around back was out with a hyper-extended knee and his absence was to much to overcome. The offense still fought hard and the replacement runners did their best. However the lack of production in the red-zone, the constant pressure on Big Ben, and the absence of “splash plays” from the half back position was evident. Coach Tomlin has always been a proponent of the “next man up” mentality. If a guy goes down, his replacement is expected to perform just as well. That kind of coaching is needed in a league where players drop like leaves on an autumn day. Three defensive starters all went down in week three against Carolina and the team still held strong, but there’s no replacing Le’Veon Bell, the team MVP. “We’re not going to let that be the story of the game” said the league’s youngest head couch to ever win the Super Bowl. That’s fair enough Coach; we won’t let it be the story of the game either, the Ravens (and the Zebras) beat Pittsburgh yesterday, it’s that simple. But the brilliant success of the young running back and the other two members of the Pittsburgh Triplets can be the story of the season, and that along with the development and potential of the rest of the roster can also be the story of next year and beyond.
The three B’s, Big Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell had record-breaking seasons. Starting with the big guy, Ben had his best regular season yet, and the best season any QB has ever had in the black and gold. Roethlisberger (tied with Drew Brees) led the NFL in passing yards. He also became the first player ever to throw for 500+ yards in a single game twice. In the game in which he threw for 522 yards, he also tossed 6 touchdowns. And to back that game up, all he did was post a second 6 touchdown game performance—becoming the first player in NFL history to do so. His quick decision making along with his perfect timing for the “backyard jaw-dropping Ben being Ben” plays are better than ever. And he’s only getting better. As long as he can stay healthy, which under offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system he has been, Roethlisberger should be able to post similar numbers if not better and play MVP level football for the next five years.
Antonio Brown not only had the best season of any wide receiver in 2014, and not only did he have the best year any WR in a Steelers jersey has ever had, the All-Pro had one of the best single seasons any wide receiver has posted in NFL history. His 129 receptions are second best all time. And his 1,698 yards are sixth best all time. He caught 13 touchdowns and also tacked on one through the air and one more on a big time punt return in the season finale. The sixth round draft pick is the most consistent WR in the NFL, and his records would say he’s the most consistent WR ever over a two year span. Brown now has posted at least 5 catches and 50 yards in 31 consecutive games, an incredible record that he broke last season and kept building upon all year long. But the mark of 5 catches and 50 yards was usually demolished. Brown went over 100 yards in 8 games this season, caught 9 or more passes in 7 games, and scored a touchdown in every tilt except for just 6, with 2 touchdown performances in 5 matches. At only 5 feet 10 inches and under 200 pounds, he looks like a midget next to the Calvin Johnsons and Dez Bryants of the world. Not only is he extremely dependable, he makes game changing dynamic plays more often that any receiver of his era. His quickness is unmatched, his toughness is beyond his stature, and he’s got super glue for fingers. He makes incredible catches on a weekly basis. Brown is still hungry, when asked about his individual performance this season, “I didn’t do enough, obviously you want to win Super Bowls and go further, and I still haven’t done enough to take us far enough”. That means Antonio Brown sees himself as a leader, he wants to carry this team. Those are the type of players you want in your locker-room. Steve Smith Sr., a player that is very similar to Antonio, gave him the best advice he could get in the pro bowl in 2011 and yet again after a game this season. “You a heck of a player man, don’t allow success to stop your grind, you understand?” Brown understands.
Le’Veon Bell is the best young running back of this generation. In a league where running backs are taken later and later in drafts, the second round pick for the Steelers in 2012 has proven to be worth the pick and worth a first round pick from anyone if they knew what he’d become. Future hall of famer LaDainian Tomlinson calls him the best back in football. According to Rich Eisen, hall of famer Marshal Faulk gets a twinkle in his eye whenever you mention Bells’ name. His 2,215 yards from scrimmage are most all time for a Steelers running back. He posted 200 or more yards from scrimmage in three straight games this season, which ties Walter Payton for most all time. Perhaps most impressive of all, in his 373 touches he never fumbled the ball even once. His vision and patience is what truly sets him apart when running. He’s got great quickness and open field moves mixed with power and speed. Along with incredible running talent, he’s arguably the best receiving running back in the league. His two back shoulder touchdown catches are proof that he’s not your average half-back. In protection, Big Ben has confidence that Bell will come through and save him from the big hits, and there’s no better back in the league at sneaking through the pass rush, being a safety valve for the quarterback, and turning a 5 yard loss into a 50 yard gain. Bell is only 22 years old, there’s no doubt that if he stays healthy and hungry he has a truly incredible career ahead of him.
Along with the big three, Pittsburgh has young talent across the board that developed quickly this year and grew as a unit. Growth is something the Steelers locker room has been seeing all year long, and the NFL witnessed it. On the offensive side the O-line played its best season in years, Coach Mike Munchak was the best off season addition for the Steelers and his unit played Pittsburgh style football. They moved people, they controlled the line, they opened holes, and they kept Ben cleaner and healthier than he’s been in his whole career. Maurkise Pouncey is one of the best centers in the league. And guard David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum are two young talents that played great all year. Players like Mike Adams and Cody Wallace stepped up and played well whenever their numbers were called. This biggest weakness of the Steelers for the past decade is becoming a bright spot, and look out for 2015. Wide receiver Marcus Wheaton didn’t have a huge breakout year like some predicted, but as the year went on he become more dependable and continued to make plays. He’s got sure hands and caught tough passes down the stretch that are proof of what he can become. Even if he’s never a stud like Brown, which is asking a whole lot, he can definitely develop into a sturdy steady target whose capable of making plays when it counts, something that Emmanuel Sanders couldn’t quite do while in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile Martavis Bryant’s extremely rapid development and big play ability was a key difference maker in the second half of the season for the Steelers. The most physically gifted skill player on the roster, Bryant is 6 foot 4 inches and runs a sub 4.40. He’s incredibly fast and his jump ball skills only got better every game. Martavis didn’t even get to wear a helmet until week 7 but his impact was immediate. He scored 6 touchdowns in his first four games, ended the year with 8 scores, and added another in the playoff match against the Ravens. At first he was used as a deep threat, and the best one Big Ben has ever had at a that (yes, better than Mike Wallace), and throughout the season he developed into a crisp route runner, seemed to be in tune with his quarterback on every play, and is now the best red-zone threat on the team. Pittsburgh ended with the number 2 ranked offense; the number 1 ranked passing offense, and they have the number 2 ranked rusher. The Steelers are now an offensive super power; and they are young and only getting better.
The defense of the team is truly the weakness, unlike what traditionalist would want, and there are tough questions that need to be answered. At the beginning of the year, defensive coordinator and hall of famer Dick LeBeau, seemed to have a hard time figuring out which young players were ready and which old veterans were or weren’t washed up. A few games in, after some injuries, the Steelers brought back fan favorite and Pittsburgh legends James Harrison and Brett Kiesel. The defensive line and line-backer problems were instantly fixed. Towards the end of the year the pass rush returned and linebackers were making plays like the days of old. But this success didn’t come from the two old heads alone, although they both made multiple game changing plays, their leadership and drive is what pushed the rest of the front 7 to new levels. Cameron Heyward called Brett Kiesel his yoda. Whether or not the team has Kiesel or Harrison going forward, the young front 7 is developing wonderfully. The aforementioned Cameron Heyward should be defensive MVP for the Steelers. His impact in a minute to minute basis is special and he’s improving every week. A defensive end in this scheme leading his team in sacks is impressive. Jason Worilds has done a nice job as the team’s best pass rushing line-backer and long time pro-bowl snub Lawrence Timmons finally got a ticket to the all-star game. Timmons is a run stopping tackling machine, leading the team with 132 tackles, 61 better than the next best player. The defensive front 7 is young, other than Kiesel and Harrison, the oldest player is 29. There are a few seasoned veterans, a few guys only 3-4 years pro, and some very talented rookies and second year pros. Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, Sean Spence, Arthur Moats and Vince Williams all played great football this season. Stephon Tuit and Daniel McCullers played solid football in Kiesel’s absence. The arrow is pointing up for all of these players, young and seasoned.
The secondary was the weakest aspect of the team in 2014. Injuries, inconsistent play, and giving up big plays haunted the team. However there are still areas in the secondary that were very encouraging. The play of Bryce McCain and Antwon Blake down the stretch was exciting. They forced turnovers, played tight coverage down the field, and didn’t make stupid mistakes. Cortez Allen was the biggest disappointment; the cornerback position is one of the toughest positions on the field, but also produces a lot of bounce back seasons after down years, so the future is not yet written for the young man. Between McCain, Blake, and William Gay the cornerback position improved drastically and the three of them could make beautiful music in the coming years, each of them have the swagger that’s needed at that position. Mike Mitchell looked to be a brilliant off season pick-up, and he played well. But he made to many mental mistakes, dealing out costly personal fouls at terrible times. Overall the defense needs some help. Whether in free agency or in the draft, positions like safety and cornerback should be addressed early. But the best part about the defense down the stretch in 2014 was its bend don’t break mentality, and the fact that they stuck together and fought hard. The offense is one of the best in the league; expect great things from them for the next 5 years, maybe more. If the defense was back to its top 5 days, the Steelers would be the best team in the league hands down. But if they can manage more like top 15 numbers and still have a pass rush and cause turnovers, and it seems like they are capable of that, then the Steelers have a legitimate shot to be a super bowl contender till 2020.
Of course some of the biggest concerns for Steelers fans are surrounding 4 Steelers legends on the defense. Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Brett Kiesel, and James Harrison are all showing their age. Both Ike and Troy had solid years last season, but 2014 was hampered by injuries and poor play at times. After the loss to the Ravens, reporters barraged the veterans with the tough questions that no one wants to hear after a tough playoff loss. Are they done football? Done with the black and gold? Ike Taylor, with a smile on his face said, “It’s too early man, gonna get myself healthy, stay my butt in shape, go back to the crib…be that stay at home dad for the time being”. It’s obvious Taylor has fun out there, but he also has a family he loves. Harrison has been in pain at times this year; it’s been rough on his body. The super bowl hero fights like he’s a super hero. When asked about his future, a depressed and monotone Harrison wasn’t ready for a question of that magnitude just moments after the loss. “You’re asking me right after a loss, I don’t know. You know, the competitor in me, I don’t wanna end things this way. You don’t wanna end things on a loss; you wanna go out kissing the Lombardi”. Harrison said this with tears starting to build up in his eyes. One of the greatest to ever play, Troy Polamalu had to answer the same questions, he did his best to avoid them at first. “Time will tell” he said after two consecutive questions on the subject. After a third time Polamalu respectively asked for the questions of his future to stop, “honestly we just lost the game, I don’t think I’m prepared to even think about that or talk about that at this time.” When asked about the process of going through a season, going through that grind with your teammates, and what that means to number 43, he did have a lot to say, as he started to get choked up, “It’s awesome, there’s really nothing like it, to be a part of that process. When you’ve been a part of an organization for as long as I’ve been, it’s not really a one year process. And having two 8 and 8 years, seeing the growing pains and seeing people develop into an AFC North Division Champ this year was a great accomplishment for us. Of course we wanted more out of it, but it will be something that this team will learn from for sure.” When asked on how his play was this year in his eyes, this game specifically, “Not good enough to win this game” Troy wants to go out with that Lombardi in his hands once more, every player desires that.
As we ponder Troy’s future and the others, we can also ponder on his wisdom. This team has really come a long way, this season and the last few seasons. The locker room certainly wasn’t happy after the playoff loss, but the belief in this team and what they are capable of was evident. Jason Worild’s believes the team will improve and be that much better after this game and this year, “for us to make it this far with this unit, we know that our potential is as high as we want it to be.” Mike Mitchell loves what he’s seen on his first season with the team, “I’m proud of the way we hung together all year, whenever anyone counted us out…we really banded together.” Ben Tate, who was picked up just this week for the injured Bell, noticed something special about this team “It’s tough for me, in the short time I was here, I got to know these guys and I know they wanted it. They have this chemistry and comradery, I wanted to do whatever I could to help these guys.” Pro bowl Maurkise Pouncey admits it hurts, but he’s already ready to move on and get better. “It’s not a good feeling at all; I think you guys know that. I think we have to be man enough to except it, get ready for the off season, bust our butts, and get ready for next year.” Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger blamed himself, "Anytime you turn the ball over, it's frustrating and that's why I wanted to apologize to the fans, to my teammates, to the organization, the Rooneys, coaches, it's frustrating. I wish I could apologize individually to everybody. Didn't play well enough to win and guys look at me as the leader and as the quarterback to make plays and to do what it takes to win the football game and I don't believe I did that today." Although it’s sombering to hear Big Ben put so much blame on himself, it’s the sign of a true leader. Polamalu, Brown, and Ben, some of the biggest leaders of the team all chose to put blame on themselves. “The team really grew” said Polamalu and Coach Tomlin. The team is young at the places it needs to be young. It’s got leadership on every level. Don’t be surprised when Pittsburgh proves that the back to back 8-8 seasons were the anomaly, the deep playoff runs will return. Health permitting, Super Bowl 50 could be a rematch of Super Bowl 43. The Steelers and Cardinals both lost yesterday on wildcard weekend but they should both be favorites to go the distance next season.
Hope deferred maketh the heart sick. There’s no doubt the team is disappointed, from the players to the coaches. Said Tomlin in his post-game press conference, “(we’re) disappointed because our intentions were to be world champions and that’s something that we’re not going to be this year based on the result of this game.” But there certainly has to be optimism as well. Based on the talent of this team, the incredible production of the big three, and the development of the young players—the Steelers really have a bright future. With a healthy Le’Veon Bell and more time for this team to gel, the future is bright. Plus there’s always something to be said about a team who can learn and grow together through the ups and downs of the NFL rollercoaster. Ever the one full of wisdom, Ike Taylor summed it all up best. “There’s a difference between the veteran guys talking about the playoffs and the young guys actually going through the playoffs. So to see the young guys going through the playoffs, even though it ended the way it did. They’re going to have a sour taste in their mouths for a long time and hopefully next year they’re come back with revenge.”
The sting of the loss to their hated rivals is very real. The abruptness of a devastating end to a promising season is very real. But the hope of next season and beyond is just as real. For now, all we can really say is “there’s always next year”. But that’s actually more exciting than it’s ever been.
© 2015 Jonathan Ammerman