Every journey begins with a single step.
It’s true, though, you can’t think about winning 13 games or 9 games or 8 games or even 5 games without winning 1 game. Sure, this opponent on this night was overmatched, overwhelmed, overrun, and all but peed on the carpet when confronted with a heretofore toothless Steelers squad. Those Bengals aren’t even a quiet meow; they are straight-up woof.
The win on MNF was hardly the technological hail mary that landing on the moon was in 1969, nor was it faked. Probably.
In order to be an average team or even a decent team, you have to start somewhere and you have to beat the bad teams. So, here we are: basking in a win for a couple of days. Feels pretty good, regardless of the warts on the trophy.
The Steelers coaches, always slow to react but who eventually get to where they need to be (sort of) watched last week’s offensive film (pun intended) and thought, “well, we can’t do THAT again.” They came out with at least a semblance of a game plan suitable to both insulate their QB into easy throws and to spread the ball around and keep things interesting. It was the opposite of stale, even if it wasn’t spectacular.
After 4 weeks, I feel safe saying that the offensive strength of this team is squarely on the two RBs, particularly in the passing game. Any gameplan that puts Jaylen Samuels squarely at the center of it and which gives James Conner a chance to do something besides run straight into stacked fronts is a huge plus. The WRs are young and working hard. They may emerge as the season goes on, just because they are getting all the reps. The TE situation looks a hell of a lot better now than it did just a week ago. If/when Mcdonald comes back at 100%, it’s conceivable that TEs might even be useful and, dare I say it… a strength.
Such is the afterglow of stomping the Bengals.
But not everything was perfect on offense. Mason Rudolph acquitted himself well in start #2, but this was clearly a prophylactic game plan and not necessarily sustainable vs a better defense. But he made the easy throws, got the ball out, even connected (close call) on a WFO deep ball that greatly improved the look of his stats. More importantly, he did a much better job this week of moving within the pocket and finding time and lanes to throw on the few occasions where he did hold the ball longer than 1.75 seconds. Hopefully, this game builds his confidence and his coaches’ confidence in him enough to introduce revolutionary new additions to the gameplan like intermediate range passing.
Now let’s talk about the real story of the night: a Steelers Defense that hadn’t been seen since the Carolina game last year. Cincinnati is a balanced offense: they’re 31st in both running and passing so far. But teams trying to be decent/good/a division contender are supposed to dominate a poor visiting team playing on MNF. And dominate they did.
The defense logged 8 sacks, two turnovers, and numerous strange looking things I believe they call “run stops” and “3rd down stops” and even some exotic “passes defensed”. They fed off the crowd and the crowd fed off their effort. A+. All of that was great.
But here’s what I noticed: the defense rotated bodies. Cam Heyward came off on nickel downs in favor of Hargraves. Alualu looked fresh and effective. Ola Adeniyi played more snaps than I can ever remember seeing from him and played well. Watt and Dupree played their best combined game ever. Devin Bush is obviously still growing (figuratively, not literally, unfortunately) but given the chance to do what he does well, he was seek and destroy on screen passes and edge plays. Mark Barron still looks like he’s in a Martavis Bryant type daze but he got in the way a couple of times and even caught a 4th down interceptions in one of the rare occasions where it’s better to catch it and not knock it down (they gained 7 yards of field position). But it’s impossible to watch Barron and not think this defense would be better if they could survive getting him off the field some. I think the obvious move would be to get Ulysses Gilbert III some rotational snaps– get him in for a series or two per game and see what you’ve got there. Best-case, he could be a future starter alongside Bush and worst-case, Barron is fresher and Gilbert cannot be any worse than Matakevich. I understand that Keith Butler has trouble focusing on more than one thing and he’s surely got his CPU working overtime figuring out how to rotate his EDGE guys without his Chickillo safety blanket, but he needs to prepare Gilbert to get on the field. Ulysses has a certain something that jumps out every time he’s on the field and that something needs to find its way onto the field more.
Speaking of Chickillo, the past couple of weeks have to have demonstrated to everyone in Steelersland that Chick is completely and utterly replaceable. STs have looked solid, both Adeniyi and Jayrone Elliott looked terrific against the run and not flustered by defensive snaps… if not for his completely ridiculous signing bonus, Chickillo could easily be cut now with no consequence. The same is true for Ryan Switzer. Once Gilbert gets some defensive snaps, the same will be true for Matakevich. If there was ever a year to give the promising young guys a chance to unseat the dead weight, this is it. The Steelers are playing with house money.
This coaching staff was better than usual this week, although they have been known to come up with aggressive and creative plans when playing poor teams at home or in night games. Let’s see if they can stack gameplans for a bit before we crown their ass. Next week presents the matchup that has puckered their sphincters like few others, even with Ben behind center. On top of that, I’m still not sold on the Steelers’ ability to stop the run or run vs a quality run defense, so this could hardly be a worse matchup. But, there is at least a little hope compared to yesterday.
One small step at a time and the fate of SteelerKind is still TBD.