Last season it was extremely frustrating to root for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Seemingly every game was a nail-biter. No lead was ever safe. Opposing teams always hung around far longer than expected and as a result, we lost a bunch of games we should have won.
New season. Same old Steelers.
It’s hard to be too positive about the Steelers 30-27 victory over the Cleveland Browns yesterday at Heinz Field. The players will tell us a win is a win. Mike Tomlin, who has a cliche for every occasion, will trot out his trusty quip about not worrying about “style points.” I guess in the wake of last year’s disastrous 0-4 start, we should be grateful for a win in the season opener, even if it was bowling shoe ugly.
The sad part is for the first half of yesterday’s game, the Black and Gold looked like absolute world beaters. You’d be hard pressed to find a more dominant thirty minutes of football. The Steelers rolled up 354 yards of offense while allowing only 100 en route to staking out a 27-3 halftime lead. Ben Roethlisberger got off to the best start of his career, throwing for around 250 yards and one vintage “scramble away from danger and make something happen” touchdown. The team got two more touchdowns from the Doobie Brothers backfield, with LaGarette Blount vulturing the first TD of the season away from Le’Veon Bell and Bell later scoring on a brilliant 38 yard run where he seemingly blew past half of the Browns defense.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s offense couldn’t get out of the blocks. One of their big free agent acquisitions, RB Ben Tate, left with an injury after only a handful of carries. Their best receiving threat, TE Jordan Cameron, was also lost to injury. The resulting disarray left QB Brian Hoyer to fend for himself while the CBS cameras repeatedly cut to sideline shots of Johnny Manziel in an obnoxious attempt to inject some intrigue into what looked like a blowout.
Then the second half started. Everything that worked on offense inexplicably stopped working. The Browns settled down and began attacking all the areas of the Steelers defense we thought they addressed this off-season. Guess what? It looks like all they did was stick their finger in a hole in the boat without actually worrying about the giant tidal wave about to turn them upside down.
On Cleveland’s first possession of the second half, RB Terrance West got loose for a 22 yard gain. That was the first salvo in what would end up being a tidy 100 yard rushing day for the rookie from vaunted football powerhouse Towson. The Steelers loaded up on D-lineman hoping that by rotating them, it’d help the run defense. Well, it didn’t. Also not helping was the fact tackling machine Lawrence Timmons had one of his poorest games in a long long time, particularly in run support.
I think deep down we all knew the secondary was going to be a problem. How big of a problem, though, we weren’t quite sure. After yesterday, I’d say it’s somewhere between fiasco and catastrophe. Mike Mitchell was brought in to be an upgrade over Ryan Clark – yesterday, he played like his clone, missing tackles and repeatedly being caught out of position. Then there’s Ike Taylor… His bitching about taking a pay cut is laughable when it looks like he’s lucky to still be in the league. If we thought he lost a step last year, this season it’s like he’s moving in slow motion. Ike still has wily veteranosity but the physical tools just aren’t there anymore. He actually reminds me of Tim McKyer and Steeler Nation remembers how that experiment ended.
I’ve seen people blame the Steelers conservative second half offense for helping make their 27-3 lead evaporate to a 27-27 tie early in the fourth quarter. They either watched a different game than me or are one of those idiotic Yinzers whose entire understanding of football is limited to “blame the offensive coordinator for any problems.” Yeah, our first drive in the second half was Cowher-esque but Todd Haley went no-huddle on almost every play in the next possession. In fact, we used a ton of no-huddle and shotgun in the second half so it’s not like going into a three handoffs and punt mode let Cleveland back in the game. The offense certainly sputtered but that isn’t on the playcalling nor is it an excuse for the defense making Hoyer look like the second coming of Tom Brady.
If anything, the offense showed that if we’re going anywhere this season, it’ll be because we straight up outscore our opponents. Antonio Brown proved once again to be one of the most dynamic playmakers in football, catching 5 passes for 116 yards and giving the Browns punter the old Seth Rollins curb stomp on a punt return. If you want to explain the sputtering second half, look no further than the fact AB didn’t register a single catch the last two quarters. Markus Wheaton tried valiantly to step up – finishing the afternoon with 6 catches that fell three yards short of 100 – but at this point he’s not much more than a pretty solid #2. If there’s anybody worth talking about it’s Bell, who has the look of a true superstar in the making. His final stat line: 21 rushing attempts, 109 yards 1TD and 6 catches for 88 yards.
The Steelers season ended last year when a kicker for another team shanked a field goal in overtime. It seems fitting they started this season with a win when their kicker, Stone Cold Shaun Suisham, booted home a 41 yarder with time expiring. The Black and Gold seem destined to live on the edge, every game being decided by the narrowest of margins. I’m not sure it’s a recipe for sustained success – or healthy blood pressure, for that matter. But the Steelers are 1-0 and considering the alternative, that’s a pretty good place to be.