Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
What did we learn in the week 8 slug-out? Let’s let the participants tell us.
I’m a little late in getting this week’s edition off the ground (been obsessively following this political thing I recently heard about), but I’m giving you some bonus quotes in this one. Hopefully people are still interested. Here we go:
“We have respect for [Lamar Jackson], but we don’t fear him.”
— Mike Tomlin
I love this kind of comment. It’s exactly the kind of attitude to take into a difficult opponent. This is a guy you could fight for. When Tomlin says “we don’t live in our fears,” he’s not just talking about taking chances during game-time. It’s also about setting this kind of tone. And while I know there’s a contingent that hates Mike Tomlin for some reason, I think he’s a master of this stuff.
As NFL talking heads start publishing their midseason predictions on post-season awards, Tomlin is an early choice for Coach of the Year. It’s overdue. He probably should have gotten Coach of the Year last year. (And frankly, it’s a crock that he didn’t get it in 2010, when he guided the Steelers to a Super Bowl despite Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension, Santonio Holmes’ departure, James Harrison and Hines Ward being scapegoated, and the entire NFL brass trying to keep the Steelers out of the big game.)
With his 140th regular-season victory on Sunday, Tomlin broke a tie with Tony Dungy for the most wins by a Black head coach in NFL history. This is a good damned coach.
“It doesn’t matter who you play before the Baltimore Ravens… I wanted the bye week after.”
— Ryan Clark, on the Steelers/Ravens rivalry
Clark made this comment after being asked last week whether the Ravens had an advantage by getting their bye the week before the Steelers game. It’s worth noting that analyst and former Raven, Bart Scott, was in on the conversation too. Clark had made a side comment about the Steelers having the better defense, at which Scott audibly growled. But then, when Clark followed it with this line, Scott immediately grinned and nodded, “yes,” then added that other teams simply don’t understand what Steelers/Ravens games mean. Respect goes both ways.
In a related story, the Browns (who came into the Steelers game at 4-1) and the Titans (who came in 5-0) were both upset in the game following their Steelers losses. Will the Ravens make it three-for-three this weekend? Time will tell.
“First half passing yards 24
Second half passing yards 24”
— CBS graphic after a 24 yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster on the first Steelers series after halftime
I draw this out to highlight how good the Steelers have been at halftime adjustments.
Perversely, it seems to me that Pittsburgh is best in the second half when they’ve struggled in the first. It’s almost as if, when they dominate the first half (like the Titans game) they don’t really know what to change, because everything is working. (I hope that’s not true.) But when the first goes awry, they’re absolute masters at figuring out what went wrong and correcting it.
As an example, look no farther than rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith, who made a huge interception early in the second half on Sunday. Highsmith noted that, on that play, Lamar Jackson had been trying to replicate a completion he’d made against Highsmith earlier in the game, when the Steelers were in a defensive look that had three outside linebackers on the field. “When that play started, I knew they would come back to that. I learned from that play. I just dropped deeper. And the ball fell right into my hands.”
Smart guy. Good adjustment. This is a team that gets better on the fly.
“Just a funny bone, I’m good.”
— Ben Roethlisberger, addressing concerns about his elbow
Pictured: an accurate summation of Ben Roethlisberger’s entire NFL career.
“It’s important that we don’t lie to ourselves. …we did not function well in a lot of ways today.”
— Mike Tomlin
This is a true assessment, but that’s not why I’m posting it. It’s also the kind of stuff I love (see above, I get hyped about no nonsense leaders), but that’s also not why it’s here. The reason I’m posting this quote is to draw out the difference between Tomlin and his long-time rival, John Harbaugh, who complained about officiating after the Ravens choked away Sunday’s game.
To quote Gary Gramling in Sports Illustrated:
“Because John Harbaugh Was Still Complaining About It an Hour Later: One more look at the complete lack of a penalty on the final play in Baltimore. This is perfectly played and unworthy of even the slightest bit of controversy.”
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) November 1, 2020
There’s nothing wrong with calling out egregious errors, on the field or afterward. But this was not an egregious error. It was a clean play and sour grapes.
Between the Harbaugh brothers’ long-running and embarrassing sideline fits, and Mike Holmgren’s rewriting of the narrative back in Super Bowl XL, I find that I just have no patience for head men whose teams make critical mistakes, then claim, “we lost because we got cheated.” The three Steelers coaches of my lifetime have occasionally alluded to bad officiating, but always made a point to be ruthlessly honest with their own team first. Hard not to respect that.
“Welcome back, Ben.”
— billboard in Baltimore
The first Steelers bus just pulled in and drive right by this sign. pic.twitter.com/L1JKaX3fAw
— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) November 1, 2020
Hmm, this one didn’t age any better than “this one’s for Myles” two weeks ago. Onward.
“A lot of people say, ‘You all beat the Ravens, you all really are legit.’ I’m like, ‘But we went 6-0, how are we not a legit unit?’”
I include this because somehow — despite their defensive success this year, despite being the last undefeated team for several weeks running, despite going 3-0 against teams that entered at a combined 14-2, despite scoring 26 points or more in every single game this season (meaning the team is better offensively than they were when the Killer B’s were peaking) — the Steelers are somehow still under the radar. Most power rankings put them at #1 now, but one gets the sense that that’s only because they’re undefeated; most would really prefer to put Kansas City above them (and some do). It’s astonishing that this team might be 10-0 when they host the Baltimore on Thanksgiving, and still somehow isn’t a Super Bowl favorite.
Some outlets, to their credit, are starting to toy with the notion that the Steelers might go undefeated this year (including BTSC). Over at Pro Football Talk, Mike Florio considered the possibility of this team running the table, then observed: “The Steelers don’t care about any of that, which is one of the reasons why it’s worth discussing it. They just show up each week with swagger and determination.”
I like that idea. As Tomlin said a few weeks back, “we do not care.” That goes for hardships, like the early bye or the three-game road trip; and it goes for confetti like “we might go undefeated.” It also holds for those “style points” Coach T has long shrugged at. Teams like Baltimore may bulldoze lesser opponents, where the Steelers simply win; but then Baltimore can’t deliver when they get punched in the mouth by a good adversary. And the Steelers simply win those games too. That’s probably why they’re under the radar, and it’s also why it’s worth considering how far this train can go…
“I was telling the line the protection, and moving guys around and playing backyard football, if you will. I don’t know if we called too many quote-unquote ‘plays’ in the second half when we were in that mode. It was more, ‘hey, run this, run this, run this.’”
— Ben Roethlisberger
I’ve include this for two reasons:
1 – Remember those halftime adjustments? I’ve already praised the Steelers coaches for this. But the Steelers players are also smart, savvy, well-prepared, and confident. That goes for rookies like Highsmith (as noted above) or vets like Big Ben.
2 – No matter how many three-yard hitches Roethlisberger throws this season, Backyard Ben isn’t dead. And that ought to scare the hell out of opponents. Because dink-and-dunk Ben can beat you with a thousand cuts, but Backyard Ben can suddenly put up 14 points in half a quarter against a defense that had been stonewalling him all day.
When both of them are available, look out.
“Goin’ to the ‘Burgh! Let’s go man. Get me to the airport. We’re gonna get that ring. . . . Pittsburgh, let’s go man. I’m hyped. I’m so hyped, I couldn’t even sleep.”
— Avery Williamson, newest Steeler
New Steelers ILB Avery Williamson just went live on his way to the airport: “I need me a Super Bowl, Pittsburgh. I couldn’t even sleep last night. I’m hype. I’m a baller, now. I’m ready to go hit shit, man. I can’t wait to be part of this defense. We’re gonna go crazy, man.” pic.twitter.com/SKnkSF1MgN
— Brian Batko (@BrianBatko) November 2, 2020
I love this. Excitement.
Tomlin, the last couple years, has stressed, “we want volunteers, not hostages.” Avery Williamson looks like a volunteer to me. Compare that to Ravens wideout Hollywood Brown’s response to the game.
(I know – a member of Antonio Brown’s family throwing a public fit about his touches when his team is 5-2 and in a dog-fight for the division? No way!)
Let me add, about Williamson: many people wanted the Steelers to grab the former Jet immediately after Devin Bush went down. But the Steelers rolled the dice with Robert Spillane, who has looked like the real thing for the last couple of weeks, and THEN picked up Williamson. In other words, they traded for him after the most difficult stretch of their season, which they swept. That makes this move at least partially a luxury move — a depth player who can log a lot of snaps immediately, and start any time, but doesn’t have to.
This is the last undefeated team in football, with perhaps the best defense in the game, who just aced their biggest test. And then they got better.
“You know me—I like defense. Hard to find these days. Defense usually wins in the playoffs.”
— Bill Parcells, to Peter King
The Steelers D got knocked around a little in the first half against Baltimore (particularly after Tyson Alualu got hobbled), but it held up when it had to. It forced turnovers, forced punts, and repeatedly broke up important passes in the crunch.
The Steelers aren’t demolishing opponents every week, but they’re winning, and they’re going to get to the playoffs. And you know what they say about who wins in the playoffs…
‘Who says they’re not supposed to make big plays?’
— Ben Roethlisberger, on unknown players, like Robert Spillane, stepping up in big moments
Or to put it another way, this team is not a collection of stars and benchwarmers; it’s a roster of football players. Next man up.
Spillane gushed about playing for the Steelers in his own press Q&A, “It’s very special playing alongside Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt for this historic franchise . . . I love being a football player, everything about it . . .” Exactly. Tomlin added, in reference to Spillane (an undrafted free agent from Western Michigan), but also obliquely alluding to Diontae Johnson (Toledo), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami, Ohio), James Harrison (Kent State), etc.: “We like our MAC football.”
That is, these guys may not have all gone to Alabama or Ohio State, but “who says they’re not supposed to make big plays?”
“Jackson has 7 turnovers in 2 starts against the Steelers, and 15 in 27 starts against all other teams”
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 1, 2020
Lamar Jackson had a career-high 4 turnovers today, breaking his previous high of 3, in his only other start against the Steelers.
Jackson has 7 turnovers in 2 starts against the Steelers, and 15 in 27 starts against all other teams pic.twitter.com/KhJrMBUNTK
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 1, 2020
Much is being made about Lamar Jackson’s struggles against good teams, or in big moments. And honestly, much probably should be made about that. But let’s notice for a second how good the Steelers, in particular, have been against him. I noted last year that the then-presumptive MVP had looked pretty mortal in his only contest ever against the Steelers. Well, make that contests now.
But more than that, I want to highlight something that’s been irritating me: the notion that the reason the Steelers beat good teams is because those teams weren’t that good.
It happened in the opening four weeks, when you heard chatter about how Steelers opponents had all been hopeless losers. Then in week six, the Browns came in 4-1, and got their collective clocks cleaned at Heinz Field. And all I could find in the post-game discussion were eye-rolls about how the Browns weren’t ready for prime time. After the Steelers knocked off the 5-0 Titans, the narrative was mostly about Tennessee’s big comeback, or about how Derrick Henry might not be as tough as he looks (even though he’d gone for 200 the previous week). Now, the Steelers go to Baltimore and dismantle a powerful rival (who featured the reigning MVP and multiple new defensive all-stars), despite themselves getting mauled in the first half, and all anyone wants to say is, “maybe Lamar Jackson isn’t that good under pressure.”
But you know, maybe the Steelers are a really good football team. Maybe everyone looks a little worse when they play the black-and-gold, because these guys are a better club. Maybe the Browns are still going to the playoffs, and Derrick Henry is still a mac truck, and Lamar Jackson is still a triple threat, but when they play the Steelers, they get disarmed by the outstanding football team on the other sideline.