It’s difficult for me to look at the 2015-era Pittsburgh Steelers without a twinge of repugnance and sadness. I was writing a chapter in my Browns book– about all the methods the NFL has put in place to ensure competitive balance. As an example of how a great team simply couldn’t keep all its players anymore, I cited the Steelers’ 1974 draft, where they got four Hall-of-Famers in five rounds:
- Round 1: WR Lynn Swann
- Round 2: LB Jack Lambert
- Round 3: WR John Stallworth
- Round 5: C Mike Webster
A draft like that would produce a nightmarish problem today. They’d all sign four-year deals, the contracts would probably all expire after the 1977 season (unless the Steelers extended someone after year two or three)– then you’d have to pick who you wanted to keep.
The Steelers probably would have let Stallworth go to keep Swann; he was playing second fiddle to Swann and someone (most likely the Rams or Falcons) would have handed him a fortune. Lambert and Webster, who didn’t care about money, could have been re-signed… but the Steelers would most likely have dealt LB Jack Ham (over thirty; four years older than Lambert) and RB Rocky Bleier (can’t afford to pay a backup starter’s wages.
Since Terry Bradshaw detested Chuck Noll, he probably would have been gone. I suspect Carroll Rosenbloom of the Rams (the strongest team that really needed a QB) would have dug deep to get him.
Anyway, it got me thinking about the dynasty that was… and then you look at these schmoes and it kinda makes you heave.
1. Chuck Noll never wanted to have anyone who’d played for another team. He wanted players to do it one way– his. This roster has 20 guys from other organizations.
Admittedly, free agency makes it impossible to do that– teams have bled the Steelers of talent every season. But seeing people who epitomize the “Non-Steeler” vibe– QB Mike Vick, WR Darious Heyward-Bey and DB Will Allen— kinda makes me barf.
2. The Steelers dominated opponents. From 1972 (when they got good) to 1979 (the last title) Pittsburgh outscored opponents by 116 to 211 points in every season but one. And, remember, that is back in the days when they played 14 games (they expanded the season to 16 in 1978) and the rules limited offenses (changed in 1978).
The exception was 1977, when they had a bunch of injuries and went 9-5. They still outscored opponents by 40 points.
After 9 games, the 2015 Steelers have outscored opponents by only 24 points. Six of the nine games have been decided by less than seven points; Pittsburgh (who is 3-3) has been depending on the breaks a lot.
3. The Steelers made a lot of mistakes– but forced their opponents into many more. It’s considered heresy to say this, but Bradshaw is an incredibly weak Hall-of-Fame pick:
- His career rating was 70.9 (which was low even for the 70’s)
- He completed less than 50% of his passes in five seasons (one of them in a year when the Steelers won the Super Bowl)
- He threw 212 career TDs and 210 interceptions
- In 168 games, he was sacked 307 times and fumbled 84 times (I don’t have totals on how many of these he lost)
Compare Bradshaw to Ken Anderson (who played in the same era) and it becomes very difficult to explain why the guy with the kinda sucky stats (who played with eight Hall-of-Fame teammates) got the nod. Anderson’s output was better; he played with only two Hall-of-Famers, neither of whom were with him for long (WR Charlie Joiner from 1972 to 1975, then T Anthony Munoz from 1980 to 1986).
But I digress. Anyway, the Steelers weren’t good at avoiding turnovers, but they were very good at forcing them– good enough that they were in the top 10 in takeaway-giveaway ratio five times in the glory days.
The 2015 team have turned the ball over 11 time (tied for #11-14 with Houston, Buffalo and Baltimore), but the defense’s 15 takeaways are only #8.
+4 isn’t terrible (it’s ninth)– it’s their best season since 2010, in fact. But they make mistakes; when they do, they can be beaten.
4. They have an unbalanced attack. The Steelers are running the ball very well this year– their 5.1 average has them first in the league– the first time since 1979 that they have done it.
There’s another wives tale. The Steelers do not always run the ball well. Often it has been very good, but the rushing attack is often just OK and sometimes pretty stinky. The only constant: they run the ball better than Cleveland.
Le’Veon Bell (4.9 yards; 113 carries) is having a good year. But 32-year-old DeAngelo Williams, who had been stuck in Carolina for the previous 9 years, is having a better one (a 5.1 yard average on 90 carries).
Bell is out for this game– but in the three games he didn’t play (games 1, 2 and 8), Williams got 68 carries and ran for 374 yards (5.5 yards a crack) and 5 TDs.
But despite that level of quality, the Steelers have still dropped back to throw on 313 snaps (291 attempts and 22 sacks) and run only 237 times. And the real total is probably close to 200, since Vick has 20 rushes and the other QBs had three kneels.
You can argue that the Steelers are wise to throw, since Ben Roethlisberger is averaging 8.5 yards per pass. The problem is that:
- He has 7 TDs and 6 INTs, so it isn’t entirely paying off. The Steelers are 3-2 when Roethlisberger starts, but they’re 2-2 with the 35-year-old Vick (2-1) and the immortal Landry Jones (0-1, but a 95.7 rating in his 47 attempts).
- Roethlisberger is 33, and he’s been hit a lot. He has 428 career sacks— first among active players and eighth all-time.
Roethlisberger has missed only 28 games in his 12-year career, but four of them came this season. He won’t start Sunday– Jones will. And if you look at his game logs over his career, you can see how often he’s played hurt. The Steelers would be better off if their offense relied less on him.
5. The defense has been erratic. It’s eighth in the league in points, but much of that is because it has played only three strong teams (New England, Arizona and Cincinnati) so far.
It’s one of the reasons I pay very little attention to in-season W-L record in comparing teams. If one team gets the cupcakes early and the other has the tough opponents, Team A looks way better than it actually is. Usually they’ll appear to ‘struggle’ down the stretch, while Team B ‘found themselves’ during the season.
We’d have better coverage if the local media could grasp that phenomenon. They always misinterpret the schedule characteristics as something more. A couple of times, it affected the “keep/fire” decision at year’s end.
Anyway, Pittsburgh’s defense played well against the good teams (28 to New England, 13 to Arizona and 16 to Cincinnati). But it gave up 23 to both Baltimore and Kansas City– which shouldn’t happen– and then 35 to Oakland.
Oakland has been on a roll since their bye week. They beat San Diego 37-29 and then the Jets 34-20. I’m still not sure the offense is that good… but Derek Carr has been amazingly good.
Some weeks Pittsburgh gets turnovers, some weeks it doesn’t. They have 22 sacks (eighth in the league), but 10 of them came in five-sack games against San Francisco and Baltimore.
There’s a 50% possibility Pittsburgh’s defense will play well… but a 50% chance they don’t. With Landry Jones under center, that could be an issue.
In her 1969 work, On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that terminally ill patients go through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
The 2015 Browns haven’t reached “acceptance” yet. But we’ve seen “denial” (saying they knew they were better than they were playing ) and then “anger” (the spate of finger-pointing).
My guess is that we’re still at “bargaining.” It’s the point of the season where people go into “Let’s play all our draft picks and see how good they are” mode. It leads to statements like:
“Isaiah Crowell has 333 yards (3.3 a carry) and only 1 TD– way down from 2014. Both Terrance West and Robert Turbin washed out; Duke Johnson (3.0 average) has run even less effectively than Crowell.
“But Johnson has been splitting time. And he has 35 catches on 41 targets– for 369 yards. So he’s got 548 all-purpose yards and he averages 5.8 per touch. Maybe if he gets a chance to be the feature back, he can provide a spark.”
The “depression” comes after Johnson gets 17 carries and gains 31 yards, making you wonder if he can ever be anything but a guy who catches passes. Other guys who might move the city towards acceptance of another bad season:
- Xavier Cooper might get lots of Randy Starks‘s time. He went from “Pro Bowl player and savvy veteran” to “old, overpaid stiff” in record time after his performance against the Bengals). The problem is that Cooper is hopeless on the run, and he might help the Browns give up 200 rushing yards.
- Nate Orchard could get a lot of time at rush linebacker, get pancaked and continue to make Armonty Bryant look good by comparison
At which point people realize that Future Former GM Ray “Snapchat” Farmer blew two drafts, not one.
The good news for Cleveland is limited to a few things:
1. Fourth-round pick Ibraheim Campbell has done a pretty decent job at strong safety. So farm nobody has really missed Donte Whitner… and not just because 2015 has been a bad year for Whitner. Based on what he’s displayed so far, it could makes sense for the Browns to ditch Whitner to make sure they retain FS Tashaun Gipson.
The problem with that notion: Gipson joined the team in 2012, and Cleveland has played 57 games since then. Gipson has played in only 43. It’s usually a bad idea to give lots of money to a player who can’t stay healthy. (See “Bowe, Dwayne”)
Note: Campbell has been awful in pass coverage. But Whitner has been too, so it’s not like the Browns lose anything by playing the kid.
2. The “Let’s see what he can do” brigade gets another player. LG Joel Bitonio is out (ankle injury). That means #1 pick Cameron Erving— who can allegedly play any positionon the line, but has settled in at “Left Out”– will get a shot.
Perhaps Erving hasn’t been playing because the Browns’ line is so exceptional (that’s not sarcasm– it has been good). Or maybe he has the same problem that every player Snapchat drafts– he isn’t any good.
We’ll soon see. If he can’t manage to look competent playing between Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, then he probably can’t play. We shall see.
3. The resurrection of Johnny Manziel is gaining steam. Peter Queen and the Mean Girls (AKA, “the national media”) seem to have grokked the following concepts:
- Manziel played much better against the Bengals in 2015 than he did in 2014.
- He played genuinely well in the first half– and certainly wasn’t the sole culprit in the poor second half.
- He’s 23 and has only played 10 games (only a handful of plays in 6) and only has four starts.
- The Browns are 2-7 and not going anywhere.
- They spent a #1 and #3 pick on him, and should look at what he can do.
- Josh McCown isn’t physically ready to play.
- Even if he were ready to play, he’d still be Josh McCown.
- If they hold McCown out, he’ll get a whole month to rest.
I’d like to think Mike Pettine never seriously considered starting McCown– that he was merely pursuing the infantile-but-time-honored practice (common among head coaches) of trying to create doubt about who might play.
Other than those two, I got nuthin’. There is no good news about the running backs. The receiving corps is a disaster; Travis Benjamin has reverted to mortal and Gary Barnidge is nearly there.
The defense has 15 sacks, 5 interceptions and 8 fumbles recovered. A year ago, it knocked down 98 passes– this season it has 32.
Oh, wait– I got something else. “Justin Gilbert is tenth in kickoff return average (26.1 yards).” Now that’s what I call getting value for the eighth pick in the draft.
This ought to be an easy win for the Steelers– even with the injuries. They don’t have Bell to run the ball… but Williams averaged 6.0 yards per carry against New England and 6.3 against Oakland. San Francisco shut him down (3.8 yards)… but the Browns’ run defense isn’t close to the 49ers.
Roethlisberger won’t play, but Jones should be more than equal to the task. He’s a big goober who graduated from the Derek Anderson School of Quarterbacking and has been Pittsburgh’s “developmental” quarterback since they took him in the fourth round in 2012.
In his first game, he actually beat Arizona after Vick got injured in the third quarter. He threw two TDs and led the Steelers to two field goals. The TDs both have asterisks:
- The first was an 8-yarder after the Cards turned the ball over on their own 8
- The other was a dink pass that became an 88-yard TD when Arizona forgot to tackle WR Martavis Bryant.
But the field goals were 70-yard and 26-yard drives. In the Oakland game, he came in when Roethlisberger got hurt with 4:21 left. The defense gave up the game-tying score, but Jones led the Steelers on a game-winning drive– from their own 20 to the Raiders’ 1, before they kicked a field goal.
He did lose his start against Kansas City… but mostly because the Steelers called 31 passes and only 24 runs (two of which were reverses). They had both Bell and Williams healthy, but decided to try to win by exploiting Kansas City’s secondary.
It didn’t work. Kansas City won 23-13 and Jones was the goat. He threw 2 interceptions (which set up a missed field goal and a TD), then sacked twice and fumbled away the ball with 2:11 left in the game.
If the Steelers simply run the ball and ask Jones to throw a moderate number of safe throws, they win. If they ask him to carry the load, they don’t.
I’m not awestruck by the ability of the Pittsburgh defense– and Manziel shouldn’t be either. Last week he faced the Zone Blitz scheme run by Marvin Lewis; this week he gets the Zone Blitz scheme that former Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau taught to Lewis.
There are differences, obviously. The Bengals run a 4-3; the Steelers a 3-4. And new coordinator Keith Butler (if you can call him that; he was their linebackers coach from 2003 to 2014) has added a few new wrinkles. But it’s not wildly different.
Here’s a fun fact I just spotted. Butler became linebackers coach of the Steelers in 2003. From 1999 to 2002, he was linebackers coach for the Browns. Jamir Miller had his only Pro Bowl season when Butler was coaching him.
The problem with the Browns in that era was not the coaches. In 2001, in addition to Butler, they had three future head coaches on staff: Bruce Arians (Cardinals), Todd Bowles (Jets) and Chuck Pagano (Colts).
The year before that, Chris Palmer hired two other guys destined to run teams: Romeo Crennel as coordinator and Tony Sparano as offensive line coach. Butler was coaching linebackers; Pete Carmichael Jr. (now the offensive coordinator in New Orleans) was tight ends coach.
In 1999, they didn’t have Crennel or Carmichael, but they had Butler, Sparano and Ken Whisenhunt (who took Arizona to the Super Bowl, remember) coaching tight ends.
To return to my point, since Manziel played against Cincinnati– a team running a very similar scheme– he should be more prepared for the Steelers than one would expect. As it happens, four of the final six games come against teams using the system (Baltimore, Cincinnati again, Kansas City and Pittsburgh again). The only changes of pace would be San Francisco (Eric Mangini is the coordinator, running Bill Belicheat’s 3-4) and Seattle (running Pete Carroll’s hybrid 4-3).
But that’s getting way ahead of things. If Manziel wants to start in those six games, he has to do well in this one. He’ll need someone to help him score points.
Crowell might. He had only 16 carries against the Steelers last year– but he gained 109 yards (nearly 7 yards a carry) and scored 3 times. But that was a time when he was gaining more yards against everyone.
Manziel doesn’t have Andrew Hawkins or Brian Hartline to throw to (not that Hartline has been much of a weapon). And word is out about Benjamin and Barnidge. Dwayne Bowe shouldn’t help much. In three previous games against the Steelers, he’s caught 17 of 28 passes for 181 yards.
I can imagine the defense stopping Jones– or helping him produce possessions and points for Cleveland. I just can’t imagine Manziel beating the Steelers almost singlehandedly.
Next week is the bye week for both teams; the Steelers will want to go into it with two consecutive wins.This will probably be a very ugly game that sets up two weeks of finger pointing and butt-covering during the bye week.
Projection: Steelers 19, Browns 12