I’d like to thank the Batlimore Ravens, the Tennessee Titans, The Jacksonville Jaguars, and The New York Jets for the mercy killing they helped engineer over the past week. I’m not sure how much more any of us watching could have taken, and frankly I’m less amazed that the team had hit the end of the road before the Meadowlands than that they didn’t mentally check out once they knew Ben was out for the year or even when Rudolph started playing like Ryan Leaf. It’s a testament to something that they made it 15 weeks plus into the season without abandoning ship.
Is it a testament to having the right kind of players as the team’s core? Is it a testament to the head coach’s message? By either measure, that part of it sure seems like a positive for the omni-maligned Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert.
Or are we looking at this all wrong and what we should be is outraged and furious that the results weren’t better?
Got some advice once about relationships that stuck with me: nothing is more upsetting or less important than the stuff you know the other person is going to do, that you’re waiting for them to do, they do it/you pounce and it pisses you off beyond all reason. It’s infuriating. But it’s also more about you and your state of mind than it is about them. They’re just being who they are––it’s you that is assessing it based on your expectation/frustration.
People seem to think that I’m overly optimistic and too forgiving of coaching/organizational decisions. However, I never said I agree with every decision or call the team and its coaches have made– that would be ridiculous and we’d have nothing to discuss here or in that show I do every week where I express a plethora of complaints.
But you have to admit that you’re being naive and totally unrealistic to have expected this season to have ended better. They laid an egg the last two weeks in large part because cinderella turned into a pumpkin. Seeing the football the team’s 4th QB of the season played the last 2-3 weeks, it’s a miracle they got this far. He looked as toasty and shell shocked as Rudolph did vs Cleveland and Cincy.
Now if you want to be like certain complainants and go back to NE in week 1– first off they are being disingenuous when they pull out Tomlin’s words in postgame/any press conference and treat them as gospel–– let’s not forget these types are the ones who think Tomlin’s completely full of crap. Convenient that he’s not full of crap when you have something to criticize.
Sean Davis played that game at safety and missed calls and blown assignments seem to follow that guy. Barron started and he looked like a completely different player than he did in the preseason. Bush looked like a rookie starting his first game. Ben looked like a guy with Terry Bradshaw’s 1983 elbow. No matter what the coaches prepped before the game, part of the defense played like it hadn’t listened to anything during the week and the QB played like a zombie throwing to rookies, castoffs, and JuJu getting grabbed and prison raped by Gilmore with no calls forthcoming. NE’s defense was playing great early in the year, Brady wasn’t half dead yet, Josh Gordon was still playing IIRC. It would have been nice to make the Minkah Fitzpatrick deal before the season started and for Ben to have his elbow surgery a year ago, so he could miss time while AB left the team three times and Boswell forgot how to kick… but barring that, that loss wasn’t exactly shocking.
That the team and its HC are slow to change, slow to change the navigation settings is a given. Sometimes that’s a positive, because they don’t panic and don’t fire/replace players willy-nilly… but often it’s frustrating for fans who want instant satisfaction. From the moment Ben hurt his elbow, the satisfaction was going to have to wait until 2020 at the earliest. At that point partway through Week 2, the realistic chances for the Steelers to finish 8-8 were about 10%. The chances of the playoffs were probably less than 1%. The chances of winning the Super Bowl were effectively zero.
Should they have offered the XFL a big buyout for some XFL QB’s contract? Should they have kept Dobbs? Should they have switched QBs again? Should they have signed Kaepernick on the bye week, just as insurance? Even with perfect hindsight, none of those options were particularly palatable, and the best case was: about one more game in the season. IDK, maybe Kaepernick would have given them a fighting chance to [play a couple more weeks… but that could have just as easily sent things into a tailspin. So, they stayed the course––probably longer than we would have––and that was that.
But, hey, we kept watching not only for the unexpected, but for things to learn and put towards next year:
1. both young backups got a chance to see what they look like as long-term starters
2. it wasn’t good but Rudolph at least looked human for a quarter after he returned
3. both QBs know exactly what they have to change to be successful, and some of it may be fixable
4. that’s unlikely, so addressing backup QB somehow has to be in the plans
5. the young receivers learned a lot and got better as the year went on
6. James Washington needs some different gloves and techniques for catching in the rain
7. JuJu needs to get over everything and start fresh in 2020
8. None of you internet curmudgeons better ever again complain about Ben’s vet days off– he was likely taking them because he was worried about his arm falling off and how dependent the team was on him remaining intact.
9. Minkah Fitzpatrick was a huge upgrade––vindicating my years-long rant that a quality free safety would solve most of their issues10. James Conner can’t stay healthy with his playstyle/body
11. The offense totally depends on Ben and is otherwise nearly devoid of creativity
12. The OL is nearing the end of its run of dominance13. There has to be a better way of playing attrition football and asking your defense and QB play to be nearly perfect every week.
13. If you’re going to run the football as a base for your offense, your OL has to dominate and you need better TEs.
Things we don’t know but can probably expect:
1. The Defense won’t be exactly as it was this year, and might not be as good even if they bring everyone back. Like a shark, you keep moving forward or you drown. Everyone else will get better, too… and let’s not forget that things like leading the NFL in turnovers one year makes it pretty likely that a reversion to the mean will be the encore. Without as many turnovers created, the offense will have to finally start not turning the ball over as much.
2. The Offense is going to turn the ball over some. You can’t and wouldn’t want to stop Ben from being Ben, and that includes making some throws that are opportunity balls or quick decisions that might not be on the same page with young receivers he doesn’t know as well as Antonio Brown or Hines Ward.
3. If there’s any doubt about Ben’s health, the offense will start the season in 1970s conservation mode. They will UNDOUBTEDLY ease him back in. Which might even be the right thing to do. And we’ll hate it.
4. More changes than the ones we’d all like/More stability than we would like. No one in Steelers fan world is going to have a major problem cutting Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo, or Ryan Switzer. They might even be good with cutting Vance Macdonald, Ramon Foster, & Tyler Matakevich. I would love to see Gilbert get challenged to be the rotating starter alongside Bush and Vince Williams. I would love to make enough salary cap space to sign Dupree, Hargrave, Finney, Feiler, Banner, Vannett, & Hilton. The Steelers? Who knows how they approach this, but I wouldn’t put it past them to use draft picks/salary-cap space on a RB, a backup QB, and a premier WR. They could keep all of the signed guys, let Dupree, Finney, Big Dan, & Hargrave walk, start Barron, Buggs, & Chickillo and spend money on an overpriced RB & backup QB who we hope never sees the field. It could happen.
What are the real weaknesses of this team that have been masked by the hideous QB play and the ridiculously overprotective (but possibly necessary) gameplanning/playcalling?
Even before anyone leaves, I have it like this:
1. Mark Barron is overpaid and terrible at practically everything he’s asked to do. He must be upgraded if this defense is to continue its run of success. If not, teams will study up on this year’s film and target him.
2. Terrell Edmunds has to go to school with Minkah and the coaches this offseason. Edmunds made some notable progress this year, but he needs to have a breakout 2020 if this defense is going to continue some sort of upward trajectory–– for the same reasons.
3. The OL needs to be re-tooled to be younger, more agile, and less expensive. They had a run as one of if not the best in the NFL, but there are now too many instances of missed stunt pickups, slow to get to the block, lack of run drive power. I love Ramon Foster as a leader, but he seems the most upgradeable. Move Feiler to LG, let Chuks and Banner battle it out for RT, find a cheaper gameday backup for OC than Finney… You’re maybe $5-6M cheaper against the cap, you’re younger, and honestly you have a chance to be better than in 2019. If you want to really upset the apple cart, then cut/trade Pouncey and replace with Finney… but that is a financial and play quality wash at best. It also would be a bummer for Ben, who loves this group. He could get over it, but I do give him some comfort to operate and communicate with guys he can trust.
4. TE production. Vance Macdonald has fallen off a cliff. I’m not even faulting him as a receiver, because I’m not sure that’s his fault. I mean as a blocker, where he went from being excellent to useless in one season of play. Unless he’s playing hurt with something that will be 100% healed, he is vastly underperforming his contract and must go. How they replace the 2018 version of him is less clear. Vannett is also a free agent, and maybe looking for the only real payday of his career. I think the Steelers need a block-first cheap vet at the league vet minimum + a year two Zach Gentry, plus a high draft pick in 2020. Unless something goes wildly wrong with the draft before mid-round 2, I am taking the best two-way TE I can grab with my first pick. I might even trade up for one, provided I have managed the team well during free agency.
5. add a RB to the mix with some different skills/traits. It doesn’t have to be Dalvin Cook or Zeke Elliott, it could be Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, or Travis Homer. They just need someone who can be part of a rotation, come in hot, make a run or a catch and run or a block when you need one.
6. add a LT-capable OL draft pick. I’m not sure Chuks is the LT of the future, Zach Banner showed well there, but he’s a natural RT, and Villanueva finished fairly strong but is an age timebomb waiting to happen. You can never have too many LT-capable OL on the roster and there isn’t really one ready to step in.
7. watch for Fred Johnson and Patrick Morris to hit the waiver wire and get them back.
8. add a young, scary deep threat WR who has some other elite skills. A young Mike Wallace, with all his flaws, would still be preferable as competition for Deon Cain. Cain showed well in limited opportunities and I’m excited to see him for a whole offseason. Same for Jamal Custis. But if there’s a sleeper in a WR-rich class that can be better, take him without hesitation once the more primary needs are met.
9. assume that Diontae Johnson will be the #1 WR in 2020 until Washington & JuJu Smith-Schuster prove otherwise. Johnson 2.67 yards of separation led the entire NFL in that category. If he makes the typical 2nd year jump, and you add healthy Ben to the mix, Johnson could be a superstar WR next season. JuJu might even revert to something closer to his career baseline. Cain might be targeted more. Washington could continue to improve. They have the potential to be a more than adequate group for Ben, if everything else works out.
10. consider playing Jaylen Samuels more in the slot. Much like JuJu, 2019 was a forgettable season for Samuels, but he was also barely utilized in the offense, save one ridiculous overcompensation game vs Cincinnati. He’s James White, not Leonard Fournette. He even has a bit of H-Back to his game. Putting him in the slot opens up ballcarrying opportunities for him that are more likely to get him the ball in space or with a crease, where he can be quite effective. In the slot, he’s shown the ability to get open quickly against anyone, and he can be a very effective blocker against a smaller player, should defenses choose to view him as a WR. Wildcat is pretty much stupid, but inside handoffs, fake inside handoffs, misdirection, and RBs running pass routes should be a strength of this offense. Which brings us to point 11.
11. IF Randy Fitchner isn’t strictly doing what Mike Tomlin wants, then he needs to either be shown the door or challenged to completely revamp the sophistication of this offense. He has shown the ability to be creative for 2-point tried and red zone offense last year––was that a fluke? Did Tomlin dumb him down, especially with the green as grass QBs? With this defense looking like they can maintain elite status, the offense doesn’t have to be crazy Air Coryell; in fact, it can be conservative and be quite effective. The difference is totally in style and window dressing. San Francisco and Seattle aren’t doing anything more sophisticated on offense but there’s so much more misdirection and, in the case of San Francisco, there are three or four options on every play out of the same formation and action. Defenses have to account for that and, in the words of Mike Sullivan, it makes them hard to play. The Steelers are generally physical on both sides of the ball, but their offense has to be among the easiest to play. Ben might beat you when you have everything covered, but if you play good assignment football, and you have similar talent you are going to have a good result. There is no reason for this, except for aversion to the risk of changing things. You could have the same pass-run ratios and run more or less the same plays––just dress it up and make it more layered, so that defenses have to account for more. Make it a priority from yesterday, and if Ficthner is not the guy to make it happen (before you dismiss him, go and watch the offense he coordinated at Memphis, which was full of different looks and window dressing and changeup formations), then find that guy ASAP and move him into Ben’s house for the duration.
12. I don’t know exactly what else they can do to focus on ball-security and shotgun snaps than they have been, but it has reached code-red levels.
13. Start approaching analytics-driven decision-making like it is life or death and stop being the card player who goes with the gut instead of playing the odds. Sure, there are times when you have inside knowledge that makes you go against the obvious choice, but that has to be rock-solid, and not just an excuse. Especially with your HOF QB returning: punt less. Pass more on 1st and 2nd down. Use play-action.
To be fair, this team is neither so far from being a Super Bowl contender in 2020 nor are they far from being a disaster, especially starting the season with a QB returning from major injury and the possibility of losing key players to free-agency/salary cap issues. Whatever your take on Mike Tomlin he’s right that every season is a new season and a new team––but he needs to be as careful with every move of the offseason as he is with 5 minutes left in the game and a two-score lead AND as aggressive as he is with his defense when the other team is trailing late. The team needs to make more moves as out of character as the Minkah Fitzpatrick deal or the trade up for Devin Bush. The Steelers need a HUGE offseason to be the team they can be in 2020. They need it from top to bottom. To be complacent and risk-averse in the offseason makes their chances of seriously contending so much more difficult. They need to be bold and be better––as Steelers fans, that’s all we have to ask.