Following a momentous opening day away victory against the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers fans are wondering if their team is lucky or good.
Or maybe both?
At the minimum the team is living an extraordinarily charmed life. After seeing their All-Pro Linebacker T.J. Watt grasping his injured pectoral region, most of Steelers Nation feared he would be out for the rest of the season.
Yet, the medical news is one being greatly cheered as it appears Watt will only be missing for six weeks.
Also tremendously worrisome in the Bengals game was the sight of Najee Harris grasping his beleaguered foot in pain. With all of the Lisfranc injury concerns of the preseason playing out, we were quick to conclude we just lost our best offensive player as well.
Still, the fortunate news coming our way as Harris is expected to return to the field Sunday in the home opener against the New England Patriots.
Steelers’ fans are already feeling like we hit the big jackpot as we breathe a collective sigh of relief regarding the health reports of these essential players. But that wasn’t the only bowl of Lucky Charms we enjoyed this week.
The 23-20 shocking victory by Pittsburgh over the Bengals was full of four-leaf clovers. The tremendously positive work of the defense created five turnovers including a pick-six by Minkah Fitzpatrick.
But the anemic play of the offense caused this game to be much more of a flip of a coin than it had any right being. In fact, by most laws of physics, the Steelers should have lost this game and left Cincy draped in remorse.
If not for the good fortune of the Bengals having to rely on a back-up long snapper, there is little to no chance Cincinnati would have missed both a point after attempt at times end and a chip shot field goal in overtime.
Some will say, we’d rather be lucky than good. But we’re Steelers fans so we much prefer being lucky AND good.
Are we? To find out, let’s give it a Spin.
Let’s Start With Happy
Considering the challenges the Steelers offense will face this year in terms of quarterback transitions and offensive line frailties, the Steelers will need their defense to be highly dominant in order to have any realistic chance to accomplish great things this year.
Can they be truly dominant? The answer is a resounding “Yes” if they can create turnovers as well as they did against the Bengals.
The Steelers’ defensive performance last week should not be minimized in any way.
The Bengals’ offense is profoundly talented with players like Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Mixon on board to just name a few. Yes, they have their offensive line issues as well, but they are used to imposing their will on a football field regardless.
For the Steelers’ defense to perform so effectively is either an anomaly…or hopefully an opening salvo to what could be an surprisingly exciting season.
If it’s going happen? It will require many more turnovers, please.
What’s The Big Difference?
When it comes to the Steelers’ defense, there are some key players who have been added the squad this offseason. Ones who are coming up big.
First and foremost is Myles Jack, who is returning dignity and attitude to the interior linebackers unit. The team’s lack of ability to stop the run last year the leading suspect of their disappointing season last season.
Jack’s presence has been felt on the defense since the moment he first put on a Steelers jersey.
There are certainly several other free agents who have made a difference as well, not the least of them Larry Ogunjobi and Levi Wallace.
Even players like Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds are turning some heads. These two former first round draft picks have well-publicized struggles, but they both seem to be finding their way with this new defense.
Which leads us all to the pathway of discovery when it comes to the biggest change in this defense. It’s coaching.
Of course it’s early. Like…REAL early.
But, starting with the preseason, this appears to be a much stronger and effective coaching unit led by Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin.
And if Brian Flores ends up returning Bush to his former preinjury glory, he will earn the vaunted title of Linebacker Whisperer.
One thing you can already sense on the sidelines with this new coaching group is a much higher level of confidence and toughness and it’s clearly spilling over to the attitude of the team.
Bring On The Wet Towel
As impressive as their defense played…ooof…that was a painful performance by the team’s offense.
With so many opportunities served to them on a silver platter by the defense, they shot blanks for most of the game. Speaking of blanks, Coach Mike Tomlin’s expression was blank almost every time the offense trotted out to the field. We felt your pain as well, Coach.
The elephant in the room is going to be quarterback play. It’s got to improve by a mile or two. Either Mitch Trubisky has some type of immediate career epiphany or we’ll have to hope Kenny Pickett has the miracle cure.
Many people would say that the only stat that matters for an NFL quarterback is their win-loss record. That sounds good, but it doesn’t tell much of the story. Others like to look at completion record, total yards or the quarterback rating.
Yet, all of these are useless hobble gobble.
A professional quarterback has only job. That is trot onto the field and lead their team to shortly thereafter enjoy the profound experience of a touchdown celebration.
Anything less is failure.
Their job is easier if they have a short field, and more impressive if they are pinned deep back on their field.
Trubisky struggled time and time again in his fundamental duty. He’s on the clock already.
There are two things that have epitomized T.J. Watt’s career so far as a Pittsburgh Steeler. One is on-the-field greatness and the other is…I’m going to say it…a vulnerability when it comes to injuries.
There are two types of Steelers’ defenses. The ones with T.J. on the field, and the ones where he is watching in plain clothes from the sidelines.
The bottom line is the Pittsburgh defense needs to win games without him.
The reason is simple. It’s the way T.J. plays. Each and every snap is an absolute bar fight. You’ll never see someone throw stools and break pool sticks over the heads of wannabe blockers more than Watt.
It’s actually a marvel to witness how completely sold out he is to the concept of getting to the ball.
He’s never going to change. And that’s a good thing. But, with his style of play this won’t be the last time that he gets injured. That has to be game planned in.
It Just Isn’t The Same
Playing the New England Patriots isn’t the same as it used to be. Once Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had the parting of their ways, the once dreaded, hated Patriots have become…just another nameless, gray face on the schedule.
Part of this reason is they aren’t as formidable as they once were. Losing to them so many times in a row can bring out the angst in anyone or any fanbase. Their winning percentage has taken a nosedive since Tom Terrific left for Tampa Bay.
Yet, there is something more to this. At least for me, it’s clear the true villain all of the time was Brady. He was the one I hated losing to the most when he was playing Patriot Games.
I’ve come to agree with the general populace that he is undeniably one of the all-time greats. And, probably in the conversation of the best player of all time.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like the guy. Even if he is so…perfect.
This is going to be one of the most pivotal early games on the Steelers schedule. The divisional win against the Bengals was massively huge for Pittsburgh. If they can back it up with a conference win, then they will need to be taken more seriously by the rest of the NFL.
One of the biggest questions will be whether this defense can perform without T.J. Watt on the field. It’s a big question.
The other major ask will be if Trubisky can get it in gear early enough to keep the natives from being too restless. Unfortunately, I can already hear those “Kenny…Kenny…Kenny” chants in the air. Can’t you?
Regardless, Tom Brady or not. A win against the Patriots is always something to get fired up about.