We understood that things with a young quarterback weren’t likely to be easy, and especially so with one coming off getting KTFO in his most recent appearance–some three weeks earlier. In fact, if you heard last week’s podcast, you know that I was probably the least surprised person in the world on Monday night, when the Steelers offense and QB struggled early. I understand we have to see what the kid has got and can’t just bail on him at the first sign of trouble, but that first 1/3 of the game was… not good. When you start longing for the days of Laundry Jones, Dennis Dixon, Old Mike Vick, and Mike Tomczak, I mean, ouch,.
Also, the Steelers’ braintrust is either ridiculously overprotective of its newbie starter OR is way ahead of us in understanding his limitations, because the offensive plan wasn’t doing anybody any favors. Take a wildly inaccurate QB waiting for receivers to be college-open, add in a run-on-1st-and-2nd-down-heavy game plan, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for 0 points against an absolutely terrible defense. Add to that the return of Mark Barron (we’ll get to that) and you’ve got a recipe for down 14-0 to one of the worst teams in NFL history.
Granted, since Fitzpatrick has returned to starting, the Dolphins have been a whole level better in terms of competitiveness. They have put up a couple of TDs in each of those games and aren’t quite as bad as they appeared to be earlier in the season. But lackluster play against any team can put you in a hole, especially when your QB can’t hit the broad side of a barn if it’s more than 15 feet away.
To say Mason Rudolph was inaccurate is like saying Billy Elmer likes french fries. Rudolph was missing intermediate throws by several yards and was missing deep throws by area codes. Let’s be clear: he has the talent to make some throws. But that talent is buried in layers of confidence, an arm that looks tired, and is talent that is especially obscured by being late late late on every throw. It’s so much harder to succeed in the NFL when throws don’t come out on time. In order to overcome that, either the receiver has to be wide open, has to fight like hell for the catch, or you have to be incredibly accurate, or the defense has to play 3rd and 22 like they’ve never seen a football before. Or, perhaps all of the above.
Mason had some nice throws in the game–I was particularly glad to see some intermediate shots on in-breaking routes that connected, including on 3rd down and distance plays that were not ideal throwing situations. He continues to show some good football on occasion. But, by and large, not every week is going to be facing a defense that bad, particularly not a run defense that bad.
As for the run offense, it continues its trend of running like gangbusters vs poor run teams and invisibility vs good run defenses. I guess we give them credit for success vs. teams they’re supposed to dominate in the trenches, but I would love to see this kind of run success vs a really good defense. James Conner used some good vision and cutback awareness to rip some chunk runs as the game went on and the Steelers stayed committed. Rosie Nix is a very good blocker, but you can’t win in the NFL if you need a one-dimensional FB on the field in order to run. Against a bottom-feeder, sure. But the Steelers have to find a way to build their young QB into a more capable and more accurate thrower/player, and you’re not going to succeed very often by trying to have him do that from a cocoon. Pass more than 50% of all combined 1st and 2nd downs until the game is no longer in doubt. That helps you put up points, and it helps you find out if your QB can really play or not––which would be nice to find out before you have to pay him the serious money of C$2.
The defense had some issues early. It boils down to three simple factors, which may or may not be fixable:
1. Mark Barron can’t make any plays and is a liability when he’s on the field
2. Joe Haden hasn’t been terrible, but he’s allowing more from the #1WRs than he has the past couple of seasons
3. Vince Williams has struggled at times in coverage
Tackling has been much improved this season, but the 2nd Dolphins TD was a disgrace, from Bush going high and getting hand fought to Edmunds waiting for the other three guys to make the play. We EXPECT the rookie to have a learning curve and we expect Barron to fail and we expect Edmunds to be a step late… have to avoid situations where they are all three on the field in the same place, I guess. All I can say: the Steelers defense looks top 5 without Barron and middling with him on the field. This team could cut Barron and his Free Agent pal Moncrief tomorrow with absolutely no ill-effect. In fact, maybe it would get a young guy like Gilbert a chance to show if he can play.
Speaking of Free Agency, Steven Nelson might be the Steelers best CB of recent years. Apparently, he fits this system to a T. Amazing what a difference Nelson and the other new addition, Minkah Fitzpatrick, have made to this team. From near the bottom bin of history in takeaways to top 5 in one season. Amazing.
So, here they are… a horrendous start to the year, a couple of big FA signings that flopped, their best performing player on D gone, their HOF QB gone… and now 3-4 with the playoffs a serious possibility, and the even the division within reach. Ain’t parity grand?
Bottom line: this year SHOULD be for learning who this team is and seeing if the young guys can play and getting in a position where next offseason they can begin the year with Ben and Tuitt and some new toys… they could be the best version of this team we’ve seen in years. The perfect setup for a year or two of Ben’s swan song and a couple of Super Bowl runs. There will be growing pains along the way, and that’s okay. At least they’re finding out in wins.
My advice? Try to enjoy the bigger picture and don’t stop believing in Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny until proven otherwise.