Is the Steelers’ Season Slipping Away?
A few weeks ago, after a comeback win in Jacksonville, Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva relayed a story to me from a book called Sapiens. And we tucked the lesson away deep in my Nov. 19 MMQB column, one that the ex-Army Ranger has leaned on in 2018.
Author Yuval Noah Harari’s idea goes that human beings rule earth because we are the only animals capable of believing in things that exist only in our own imagination, like (as the description on his site reads) “gods, states, money and human rights.” Harari goes on to retell the story of humankind through that lens.
It’s the way in which Villanueva is choosing to position his team’s fight through distraction on its way to the home stretch of the season.
“Our team is like that—we’ve all been there for so long, we understand each other, we know how it’s done,” the former Army Ranger said. “The main theme is there, that coach [Mike] Tomlin wants us to look after each other, our preparation, and not blink. That’s how he wants the personality of this team, sharing myths, sharing values.
“And at the end of the day, it’s that mature mentality that we have—that we haven’t done anything yet.”
Since our conversation, the Steelers have proven Villaneuva’s point. They hadn’t accomplished anything yet. Seven days after that last-second win over the Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger threw an unsightly pick to blow a chance to force overtime in Denver. Seven days after that Pittsburgh squandered a 23-7 lead against the Chargers and lost on a last-second field goal.
Now the Steelers are 7-4-1, just a half-game up on the Ravens in the AFC North, with their chances of getting a playoff bye—very real two weeks ago—slipping away.
They again face the question they have since August. With so much noise around the team, will the “shared myths” that Villanueva analogized back during Thanksgiving week carry them through? Or will they blink?
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look at the Heisman finalists from an NFL perspective, and I’m going to get to all of your questions—which were heavy on coaching search stuff, for one reason or another, this week. But we’re starting with the Steelers, and a game at Oakland that increasingly looks like a must-win.
Sunday’s trip out west isn’t a must-win for the Steelers because of who they’re facing. It’s must-win, because of who they aren’t facing. A week from Sunday, the Patriots come to Heinz Field. Then the Steelers travel to New Orleans.
Bottom line: Going into that back-to-back stretch off a missed lay-up (yes, the Raiders are playing better, but still …) and a third straight loss would be a killer.
So this Steelers season, with Roethlisberger at 36 and Antonio Brown at 30 and Le’Veon Bell not playing and headed for the door, has hit its crossroads. Pittsburgh could kick the Raiders all over the infield at the Coliseum and use the game as a launching point. Or this could be where 2018 goes to die for a wildly talented but aging core.
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Of course, this isn’t just about Villanueva playing Jumbo Socrates or the team finding motivation to save its campaign. There are tangible reasons for the rut the Steelers are caught in. And so I called a few coaches who’ve studied them to break down Pittsburgh’s problems—and why things haven’t quite been right for the Steelers since that wild comeback in Jacksonville. Three main issues came up.
• James Conner isn’t Bell, and Conner is now hurt. “Conner’s a tough runner, but he’s not Bell,” said one opposing defensive coach. “And Bell is a receiving threat that Conner is not.”
First, there’s the suddenly sputtering run game—Pittsburgh has averaged 55.3 rushing yards per over its last three games, after more than twice that number in each of the five games before that. Conner’s looming absence after suffering an ankle injury in the second half of Sunday night’s loss only exacerbates that issue.
But even with Conner in there, the Steelers were starting to really feel Bell’s void in the passing game. Bell could actually play receiver, which allowed Pittsburgh to throw out of empty sets with an extra linebacker on the field (to account for the run). Now, to go empty, the Steelers have to use a combination of receivers and tight ends, which allows the defense to anticipate it and match personnel.
So gone is one way Pittsburgh became accustomed to killing opponents.
• Talent in the secondary is thin. Early on, the Steelers’ issue was giving up explosive plays. That’s not as big a problem anymore—but the secondary remains one. Former first-round pick Artie Burns was benched in favor of journeyman Coty Sensabaugh, with venerable vet Joe Haden, now in Year 8, having a lost step.
While the move to Sensabaugh stabilized some things, the shuffling has caused a depth issue. And there’s also the problem of not being able to match up with big-time receivers on the front end. Not exactly a shocker that Keenan Allen (14 receptions, 148 yards and a TD) had his way with the Steelers on Sunday night.
• They still miss Ryan Shazier. Coach Mike Tomlin said himself that injuries to Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton, two guys who’d play the “dimebacker” (a hybrid/safety linebacker), has been an issue. The team has addressed it by employing first-round pick Terrell Edmunds in that role, and he’s made the kinds of mistakes you’d expect from a rookie. All this is to address the fact that the linebackers were yielding explosive plays.
This is where Shazier shone—he could run as well as any ’backer in the league. It really does feel like the Steelers have been chasing his absence since he got hurt, Which explains why certain teams have been aggressive with their tight ends against Pittsburgh.
This shouldn’t read like an epitaph. The Steelers still have a two-time Super Bowl winner at quarterback, a top-two or -three receiver, and strength on both lines of scrimmage. They have a playoff-tested coaching staff. They’ve got home field for the Patriots game.
And Villanueva is right. The group has been through a lot together. In July and August these same questions were asked, as it seemed to some that Pittsburgh was finally going to be crushed under the weight of self-generated drama. Instead, Tomlin did what he usually does—play master psychologist and channel all the personality and ego, and ride out the bumps.
The coach’s ability to do that has enabled so many things in Pittsburgh—not the least of which is freedom for GM Kevin Colbert to cast wide net in acquiring talent—over the last 12 years. And that’s been a big factor in two Super Bowls, a championship, and near annual trips to the playoffs.
That’s why it was probably silly for anyone to think this would all blow up over the summer. History should’ve told all of us that wouldn’t happen.
Conversely, history should’ve also served as a warning sign for what’s happening now. Because whether or not this group of Steelers will ever find its ceiling as a team remains very much an open question.
WATCH: THURSDAY NIGHT PREVIEW
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five NFL players in the spotlight in Week 14:
Vikings RB Dalvin Cook: The second-year pro looked fantastic against New England, averaging 9.3 yards per carry. The problem? He only had nine carries. And I don’t need to tell you it’s a problem, because Mike Zimmer already did. This week, getting that fixed will be a priority, since getting the run game going and sticking with it might be the best shot Minnesota has at slowing down Seattle’s pass rush.
Rams RT Rob Havenstein: Quietly, Havenstein’s become a key to Sean McVay’s offense, which why the Rams extended him through 2022. And this is a week, against the Bears, where they’ll need him to be at his very best—with noted game-wrecker Khalil Mack likely to be lined up over him a lot.\
Colts QB Andrew Luck: Against the Jags last week Luck has his worst game since September, and the Texans can bring the heat like Jacksonville can. Losing center Ryan Kelly has been a blow, too, which is a big part of why he took more than one sack in a game for the first time in two months. So this has the feel of one where Luck will have to lift the play of his teammates.
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes: For the second time this year, Mahomes will face a top-five defense (Baltimore), and he was uneven the first time around (against Jacksonville). What’s more, Kansas City is still adjusting post-Kareem Hunt—Mahomes led the team with 52 rushing yards against Oakland. So there’ll be a lot on the second-year pro against an edgy Ravens team.
Eagles CB Sidney Jones: Philly has a math problem against Dallas, and it relates to their M*A*S*H unit of a secondary. Because they’re depleted there, it’s hard to be as aggressive with coverages, which would make it more difficult to load the box on Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys run game. Unless, maybe, Sidney Jones is capable of a little more as he gets healthier.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
A couple Heisman candidates from an NFL perspective.
Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins (Heisman Trophy Ceremony, ESPN, 8 p.m.): Haskins’ first college start came just three months ago, but those in Columbus have been touting the redshirt sophomore as a first-round talent since he arrived in 2016, and he delivered on that potential this fall—completing 70.2 percent of this throws for 4,580 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight picks in 13 starts. And so it sure looks like, if he declares, he’s in play to go on night one of the draft. “Good size with physical development and maturation left, very productive and a winner,” said one AFC exec. “He’s accomplished on and off the field—they love him there. He’s poised and in command, he handles the stature of the position and the program well, and he has unique experience with the coaching situation what it was to start the season. And his performance off the bench at Michigan in 2017 was impressive. He’s got a good arm, good timing, a little less accuracy downfield, he’s athletic enough but not a runner, and a good decision-maker.” One thing I’ve gotten back from scouts is that Haskins needs to tighten up mechanically and clean up his footwork and delivery a little, with the thinking being that would improve his his accuracy. So yes, he could use another year in school. But if he’s going to go in the first 32 picks, it’d be tough not to take that chance.
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Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa (Heisman Trophy Ceremony, ESPN, 8 p.m.): The true sophomore’s numbers are outrageous—he’s thrown for 3,353 yards, 37 touchdowns and just four picks, with a completion percentage of 67.7 percent. And the Tide has been so dominant that he’s only played in the fourth quarter of three games. All of which has NFL scouts peeking at him now, even though he’s not draft eligible until 2020. “He’s extremely poised, extremely accurate—that’s his game,” said an AFC college scouting director. “But he’s never had to face a lot of adversity—he’d only thrown three passes in the fourth quarter all year before last week. There are a few things you can’t teach—his accuracy, his mechanics, these guys have been playing football their whole lives, and it’s hard to develop mechanics and accuracy after they played that much ball. He has that inherent ability to place the ball, very good timing, rhythm, pocket presence and poise. He’s never flustered, and he has intangible traits. Does he have a cannon? No, but he’s a got good arm. I’d like to see him actually stressed, but he’s played well.” So the knocks? He might be a shade under 6-feet tall. And his durability, as a smaller player, has been an issue. He came out of games against Missouri, Mississippi State and, last week, Georgia. We mentioned a few weeks back that the staff in Tuscaloosa compares him to Drew Brees. When I asked the evaluator above about that, he hesitated. “As an NFL prospect, I think he’s more Case Keenum than he is Drew Brees.” (That, by the way, wasn’t a shot, so much as it was a thought that he’s not special physically, from an NFL perspective.)
Addendum: To a man, each evaluator I’ve talked to on the other Heisman finalist, Kyler Murray, has said two things: 1) Even if he wasn’t going to play baseball, he wouldn’t project to be a high NFL draft pick as a quarterback, and 2) he should win the Heisman, based on what he’s done this year compared to Tua and Haskins.
Answering your Twitter questions:
From Cris (@cde_leonn): Front-runner for MVP now? Gotta believe it got closer after last week.
Cris, I’d still take Drew Brees here. The guy had a bad week, but his passer rating (123.2) is still obscene, as is his TD-INT ratio (30-3) and his completion percentage (75.5). He’s the best player on the team that’s been the league’s best for most of the year. And maybe this shouldn’t matter, but righting the wrong of Brees never having won an MVP is a nice side benefit for voters.
Could someone catch him? Sure. Patrick Mahomes’ team is in a tight race for the AFC West title and home-field throughout the playoffs, and he has nationally televised heavyweight bouts with the Chargers and Seahawks on tap for Weeks 15 and 16. Plus, he’s got the chance to lift his offense past the Kareem Hunt situation, and storylines can matter with these awards. For now, though, I think he’s still chasing.
From Too_Fly_4_A_WhiteGuy2 (@TWhiteguy2): What is your opinion on the Marvin Lewis situation?
On one hand, it seems past time for the Bengals to shake things up a little. On the other, I remember what that place was before Lewis arrived in 2003, and I believe Lewis is a very good coach who’s simply been hurt by staff and roster attrition the last three or four years. And I know that owner Mike Brown is unlikely to go in another direction altogether at 83 years old.
That’s why Redskins coach Jay Gruden was a rumored target last year. It’s also why then-Browns coach Hue Jackson was seen as a candidate to come back, and even now—after everything that went down in Cleveland—is seen as a potential successor to Lewis. And it’s ultimately the reason why I remain unconvinced that any sort of seismic change is coming.
From Daniel Pennell (@DanPennell): Does McCarthy wind up as HC in Cleveland? Or do they go with a younger coach?
I’d be surprised if McCarthy is the Browns’ pick, Daniel. Not impossible, but I don’t think he’d be at the top of GM John Dorsey’s list right now. My belief is that the Browns are going to go through the full process, and look under all kinds of different rocks for candidates.
That means second-chance guys, like New England OC Josh McDaniels or (if he comes available) Baltimore’s John Harbaugh; hot younger coordinators, like Vikings OC John DeFilippo; and even college coaches like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. My guess would be Dorsey is already pretty far down the road on his background work.
This is a guy, after all, who was going through the full scouting process on the 2018 draft quarterbacks in October and November 2017, a time when there wasn’t a team actually employing him to do it.
From John Appleton (@jaa0109): This offseason, do you think more head coaching vacancies will be filled with coordinators/assistants, or do you think they’ll be filled with recycled head coaches?
John, I think the well is too dry for teams to narrow their focus like that. Years and years of seven or eight coaching changes per cycle has basically sucked the supply out of a market with constant demand, which is why you saw teams taking chances on guys without more than a year or two of experience as coordinators (Steve Wilks, Mike Vrabel, Matt Nagy) last year.
Now, I know everyone is saying find the next Sean McVay! And I’ve got three thoughts on that. First of all, McVay is a coaching freak—there isn’t another one. Second, it’s not like everyone was falling all over themselves to get him in December 2016. He was also considered a risk at the time. Third, everyone seems to want McVay’s offensive genius, but I think his ability to lead and relate to people is every bit as important.
Long story short, I don’t think any team that’s looking can afford to box itself into trying to find a certain kind of candidate, because there just aren’t enough of them—a dynamic that, in the end, may actually wind up buying a sitting head coach or two a stay of execution.
From Michael Pollack (@PMikePollack): Is Brian Kelly getting NFL fever again?
Michael’s on it. There was a point three or four years ago when buzz was persistent that the Notre Dame coach was looking to leave South Bend, with the NFL his preferred destination. That’s died down since, as Kelly has reworked his program and gotten the Irish back into the national conversation the last two years.
I still think he’d listen to the idea of going to the NFL at some point. But I’m not sure he’s motivated to go like he once was. And there’s always been the question of how his hard-driving style—not unlike Nick Saban’s—would sell to pro athletes.
From Michael Despins (@Spinnerdespins): Is this the last year for Gronk with the Patriots?
I’d tell you, Michael, that I don’t think Rob Gronkowski will be back with the Patriots at his current numbers for 2019—$10 million in cash and $12 million against the cap. So in part because of that, I think Gronk will be right back where he was last spring, going back and forth on whether or not he wants to continue with his career as a pro football player.
At his height, I don’t think any tight end has played the position at a higher level, which is also a factor here. Guys like that generally have a harder time than most in dealing with becoming a lesser version of themselves (Dez Bryant went through this too), and I don’t think that’s been easy on Gronkowski. And then there’s what he has to endure, after all those surgeries, to get himself in a position to play each week.
Would he be willing to be a percentage what he once was, and go through a lot to play in New England at a discount off what he’s due to make now? Is he amenable to the idea of playing somewhere else? My feeling is those questions will be relevant come the offseason.
From Chi Cheong Ho (@chicheongho): What are the Jets and Colts going to do with all that cap room next year?
Depending on where the cap lands, the Jets will have close to nine figures in room to work with, and the Colts will have in excess of that, giving both clubs virtual blank checks to do what they want this offseason. And my belief is the two have a couple mutual needs to take care of—the offensive skill positions and the pass rush.
Good news and bad news there. The bad news is there isn’t a whole lot of the former to speak of, outside of Le’Veon Bell (I don’t think the Colts get in on him; we’ll see on the Jets). The good news there’s plenty of the latter—K.C.’s Dee Ford, Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney, Dallas’s DeMarcus Lawrence, the Rams’ Dante Fowler, New England’s Tre Flowers, Seattle’s Frank Clark and Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah are all up.
So if you want a starting point for both teams, it’s right there.
Fron Jad Richa (@JR_capstone): Any chance David Shaw would listen to the NFL and maybe John Dorsey?
I’d put Shaw and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald in the same category—well-paid coaches with uncommon job security at their alma maters, located in their home states. Both are considered premier program builders. Both have proven to be able to take on the big boys despite significant competitive disadvantages. Both are believed to have NFL coaching traits up the you-know-what.
I love the idea of either in the pros. I have no clue when or if one or the other will actually decide to take a job. But I suspect their opportunities to will keep coming.
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