But, let’s face it: this was an appetizer, a bonbon, a selection of cheese and crackers before Thanksgiving. I mean almost literally, considering this year’s weird Thanksgiving is just a couple of days away and features fewer family get-togethers than usual but one family gathering with the main course served at about 8pm that will be must-see TV.
>But, here we were, watching an undefeated team in a game with absolutely zero upside for them. You know how back in the day Babe Ruth or some other baseball superstar would visit some town in the sticks and some hick kid pitcher would try to throw 3 fastballs by the great Babe? What’s in it for the Babe? If he clobbers one to Punxwatawney, A. he was supposed to B. he should have hit it farther and C. mean old Babe, crushing that kid’s dreams. That was the Steelers yesterday; that’s life being a storied football franchise with a great coach, a great QB, and an unblemished record. They are expected to win, they can’t win by enough points to justify anything to anybody, and if the other team does anything right on a few plays play, it’s ‘oh woe are the Steelers’.
Add to that, from a fan’s perspective, that the closer we get to the postseason and the bigger Pittsburgh’s lead in the division, the less we care about a game on Sunday vs. some schlubs who don’t belong on the same field as the guys in black and gold. We’d be satisfied for all the players to go in bubble wrap and for the playoffs to begin… and at this point, I think it’s safe to say anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl would be a disappointment for pretty much any Steelers fan, and (if we’re being honest) anything less than a championship would be heartbreaking. Yes, we’ll care when we see the Ravens/Bills/Colts and perhaps if we see the Browns again with something on the line (hopefully not)… but until then it’s the Kobayashi Maru scenario––the Steelers can’t win; they can only endure and try to stay healthy for the remainder of the regular season and beyond.
A friendly reminder, though: we as fans should enjoy the hell out of these sorts of games! Our team is undefeated and untied! We’re witnessing an historic season!
But instead, we’re required to wring our hands about the other thing the Steelers can do versus this kind of game. It’s something no one likes, but it is more or less smart: use these games against overmatched opponents to work on aspects of their game that need work. At the height of my musical career (well, height may be an exaggeration), I used to have a gig for a weekly blues jam night––one of those evenings where the house band plays a few blues standards, then a parade of musicians from the crowd come up and sit in for a few sets worth and then the house band plays a couple at the end of the night to wrap it up. For me, it was a few bucks and a night of free drinks each week to do little more than set up my keyboards/amp and occasionally be asked to get back up on stage and play with the masses.
The thing about these kinds of impromptu gigs is: you’ve got no practice and often untrained improvisers, so things tend to settle to a default mode. For blues jams, it’s “shuffle in A”. Thing is, after a while, ‘shuffle in A’ gets old. REALLY old. After years of playing this blues jam night, it got so old that I could easily have spent most of the night completely checked out and still playing along. Then one night, in the middle of a gig like that, I thought back to something pretty much every coach/teacher I ever had said at least once: “if you go through the motions or don’t try 100% or don’t study, you’re only cheating yourself.
I remembered an interview with B.B. King, where they asked him if––after performing at 275 shows per year for 50 years if he ever got tired of playing. He said the secret was that a few years back he had started making mistakes on purpose to create for himself sort of a puzzle that he had to work himself out of so that no one in the audience could tell. So it was that I started to invent things to do to challenge myself during the most boring gig in the world so that I could work on the weakest parts of my game instead of relying on what I was good at––it’s fun to work on the good stuff but you only really get better by working on your weaknesses. I would give myself a different challenge every night. ‘This week, I’m going to maintain eye contact with the audience and never look at my hands’, ‘tonight, I’ll transpose my keyboard to a random pitch and play shuffle in A in completely different key’, ‘tonight, I’ll start and end every solo with the same lick that the soloist before me played at the end of his/her solo’, ‘tonight, I’ll quote a different and unrelated song in every solo’ and so on. It not only kept me interested and engaged, I got better.
Shuffle in A, e.g.
And so it is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are working on the stuff at which they struggle at times. Hopefully, they are going to get better at it.
They are struggling to get consistency in any aspect of their offense (which is a remarkable thing to write of a team that has scored at least 24 points in every game and hasn’t lost). When they’re rolling, they can be downright impossible to stop but then they’ll throw a series at you with a stuffed run, a dropped pass, and/or a misconnected deep ball on 3rd and manageable. And the run game… oof.
>The Steelers’ run game doesn’t need to set the world on fire, but if it could please at least not set the series back and make things more difficult for converting 3rd downs, that would be great. As I have often said, the run game on both sides of the ball depends on all 11 players to succeed/stop. If any one of them fails to do his job, the whole thing goes down in flames. You miss a block, you miss a hole, things can get ugly. Right now, their offense can get some good blocks but the RB doesn’t get to the right hole, or the pulling guard doesn’t make it to the edge defender, or a TE gets pushed back into the backfield and so on. They had some good gains yesterday–– some of which were well-executed and a few of which were a RB bouncing out of the original hole and finding some room on the outside. It still feels so one step forward, two steps back, rudimentary––and it’s clear they are working through some shit right now––but I don’t think it’s just scheme predictability.
It’s two things:
1. team execution is inconsistent and
2. lack of transcendent talent to overcome #1
Blame (Matt) Canada! I mean, Matt Canada got the praise when the Steelers run game had a slew of 100-yard rushers and there was presnap movement and so on…doesn’t he also earn some criticism for lack of imagination in how to overcome their current issues? (To be clear, I am making a rhetorical point––I don’t really think it’s Canada’s fault, even though they’re assuredly not all nice back bacon-eaters who are kind to old ladies). Perhaps it has more to do with the use of personnel? To wit: They used J.C. Hassenauer as a FB in goal line. Let me repeat: Derek Watt is healthy, they had an occasion that they felt warranted bringing a fullback into the game, and they used the backup center for that job. (Maybe they’ve seen Watt blocking on offense this year and that convinced them to go elsewhere? He hasn’t been good at that job thus far).
They (read Matt Canada, if you like) inserted Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland into the game and gave them the ball 10 times to pick up 18 glorious yards. Hell, BSF even got 5 yards on one occasion. Whoopee! Ice cream sundaes for everyone!
Hell, as much as defenses are sitting on the jet sweep, Ray Ray McCloud still averaged more per carry than the Steelers two backups did yesterday. Maybe they can try Jaylen Samuels and some guy off the street next week? Or maybe it’s up front? (Narrator: Oh, yes it might be.)
Kevin Dotson was in the COVID protocol, so they couldn’t have used him even if they wanted to, but if he is available this week, why not use him when you’re bringing an extra lineman? Is there a universe where Gerald Hawkins offers more as a blocker than Kevin Dotson does? I hate bringing in an extra OL the way I hate how teams self-destruct when they’re playing Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady–– THEY DON’T NEED ANY HELP, FELLAS!!!––but if you’re going to do it, get creative! Bring Dotson into the interior and swing Feiler out to RT or the extra TE. Yesterday, with no McDonald and an in-game-injured Zach Gentry (remember him? He still plays for this team… allegedly), they were kind of forced into that look… but then again, wasn’t Derek Watt supposed to be TE-capable?
Something is afoot with the Steelers interior O-Line, and strong thought has to be given to replacing either Feiler or Decastro… or maybe a rotation of all three?
“Even turtles move forward continuously.” – Professor Half Wit
Well, I guess this week was an improvement over the past couple of weeks, so we’ll have to hang our hat on that and move forward––and when I say move forward, I can’t help but think of offenses that go that direction without requiring the Quarterback to draw up plays in the dirt. I’ll continue to defend Randy Fitchner from blanket criticism but there is clearly something about the way the organization, the head coach, the QB and the OC of this team like to run offense that is idiosyncratic, predictable as shit most of the time, is capable of equal parts frustration and thrills, and wins A LOT of games. A reminder: the Steelers organization turns like an oil tanker: it took 10 years to get a move TE and 15 to let Ben throw the ball at will… I’m sure an offensive plan that gives Ben some easy looks and space for his RBs to make easy yards is right around the corner. Wishing for it to get here before a potential matchup with the Chiefs is just going to put pain in your heart and scotch whiskey in your belly.
8. in general, clean up the mistakes and be the best football team you can be
I hate to say it but the Chiefs have become the new Patriots. They are never out of any game and they’ll come back from the dead numerous times if need be. I was honestly more energized by the Raiders have a chance to knock KC down a peg last night than I was about the lackluster Steelers win. But when I saw the Raiders throwing into the EZ and trying to score with over 2 minutes left… I just thought: you guys don’t get it. You have to go just stupid unorthodox there and kneel a couple of times or something. Make KC use their timeouts, run the clock down at least a little. Try to make the game come down to one play on 4th down where you have the ball in your hands. Sure, if you fail to score a TD on that play you’ll be vilified, but I think it’s about time to acknowledge that, given 1:48 and 2 timeouts, needed a FG to tie/TD to win, Vegas’ chances of winning that game would be better on 4th and goal from the 1 than they would have been to score when they did. Let us hope our coaches can spend the next two months figuring out the endgame vs. that kind of opponent, because if this team continues to find ways to win, that day is coming. Keep the faith and your hunger, because if that holiday comes, it’ll come with the ultimate all-you-can-eat buffet with all the trimmings.
Haven’t spent much time talking about the defense but, in their own no-win scenario, they dominated the Jags offense and its rookie QB as expected. They extended their streak of consecutive games with a sack, added a bucket of turnovers, and generally left the Jaguars QB signal-caller hoping that the clock would move a little faster towards zero. They got their backups some reps––both by rotating in some earlier in the game and in the 4th quarter. They more or less held rookie RB James Robinson in check––for all their faults, this is a legit top-10 running game in Jacksonville and Pittsburgh made it a non-factor on a day when the Jags didn’t have much else, unless you count the beautifully executed onside kick by kick returner Keelan Cole that required a heads-up and authoritative mid-air recovery from backup LB (or is it safety?) Marcus Allen. A brief scare when Joe Haden left the game turned out to be nothing major. Thanks be to Jobu.
Diontae Johnson might be inconsistent and oft-injured, Chase Claypool might not be getting any DPI calls despite being held on virtually every play, you might want to cover your eyes when Eric Ebron is blocking, and JuJu Smith Schuster injured himself stepping on a penalty flag…. but somehow those guys keep racking up 100-yard games, getting open deep, catching TDs, and making key contributions in the passing and running game. Maybe they aren’t utterly feared like the Chiefs’ Hill/Kelce with Mahomes but this team has some scary and productive weapons to bring to the fight.
(Warning: Do not attempt to cook swans for Thanksgiving. They’re nasty and they bite!)
NEXT: A rematch with the Baltimore Ravens team PFF and analytics insists is superior to the Steelers, despite the fact that the former keeps losing games and the latter keeps winning. We’ll see which turkeys’ goose is cooked come Thursday night.