Sunday's defeat to the 8-1 Dallas Cowboys was an ample opportunity for the reeling Pittsburgh Steelers to re-ignite their 2016 Super Bowl campaign and turn around a three-game losing streak. Embarrassing losses to the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens could be well within the rear-view mirror if the Stillers could handle business at home in football's biggest game of the year thus far. Despite the hype leading up to this classic match-up--the deserved buzz around rookie phenoms Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott who have managed to change the hopeless rhetoric of 'America's Team' through a seven game winning streak--the Stillers were expected to protect Heinz Field and have an answer for the hot-handed Cowboys. All last week, the tone in the Pittsburgh locker room was a calm urgency. Two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, told the younger cast members of the Black and Yellow to "follow my lead."
It hadn't just been the three poor performances the Steelers had put on tape after beginning the season 4-1 that emanated concern, but rather the lack-luster and undisciplined play that has been so uncharacteristic of Steelers football. The Pittsburgh offense has been praised for its potential as soon as they (and by "they" I mean an Antonio Brown and Le'veon Bell-less Steelers) were ousted from last year's playoffs by the Denver Broncos. The machine of Big Ben, Bell, and Brown as well as the emergence of somersault-specialist, Martavis Bryant, had many analysts questioning who could stop an offense with a goal of scoring 30 points per game. Mental health has sidelined Bryant for the entire season, but the answer seems to be the Stillers stopping themselves.
Prior to Sunday's loss, the Steelers offense averaged 15 points against the Miami Dolphins (double-yoi), Patriots and Ravens. Holding calls, mis-communication with the games best wide receiver, AB84, and an injury sidelining Big Ben for the inevitable loss against the Patriots left the offensive outbursts untapped. What's more baffling than a sputtering offensive unit is how uncharacteristic the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has played. Understand that the complexion of the Steelers' defensive team has changed since our Super Bowl appearances in 2005, 2008 and 2010. Players like Casey Hampton, Brett Kiesel, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu who anchored the 2000s Steel Curtain are now a part of Stillers lore, retired. Those game-changers Pittsburgh still has on defense, namely James Harrison and Lawrence TImmons, are sadly nearing the end of their careers, bodies unable to consistently make the strip-sacks and timely interceptions that would close-out ball games--think back to "Silverback", James Harrison's 100 yard interception return for a touchdown to end the first half of Super Bowl XLIII.
Over the past several years, the Steel Curtain has been reconstructed to feature new linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. Young players who were selected as high value draft picks such as Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt; and rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave have been called upon to fill the shoes of older impact players. Before the game against Dallas, the Steelers coaching staff was quoted by Fox reporter Erin Andrews saying, "The young players have to grow up. Today. The honey moon phase is over." Becoming a feared cohesive unit takes time and experience to put together. This losing streak has really highlighted these growing pains, though. Between Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, the respective running backs for the Dolphins and Patriots, the Stillers were mauled for over 300 rushing yards and four ground scores. Pittsburgh's pass coverage was non-existent, too. The mantra in the secondary has always been 'bend don't break' where pass yards may be given up, but yards-after-the-catch and touchdowns are relinquished seldom. The issue over the past two and a half seasons; however, is that the Steelers are just giving up too many passing yards. From 2014 to this year, the defense has ranked 27th or lower in the NFL in pass yards per game. Signing defensive backs Artie Burn, Sean Davis, Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell was meant to rejuvenate an aged unit, but those aspirations have yet to come to fruition. To be fair, injury has delayed some of the live-action opportunities for players, in particular for someone like 2015 second round draft pick Senquez Golson whom has yet to play a single snap. For those players on the field, though, it's like watching the bully quarterback choose which kid to pick on next, as Rob Gronkowski, Jarvis Landry and Mike Wallace repeatedly burned defenders. And when there looked to finally be some battles won, competitive plays were called for pass interference and face-mask penalties. A Steel Curtain defense meets ball carriers at the point-of-attack, plugging any open holes and controlling the line of scrimmage. A Steel Curtain defense takes pride in tackling, looking to abuse average quarterbacks, creating sacks and forcing turnovers, while limiting the home run ball. A Steel Curtain defense plays disciplined, communicative football.
Sunday certainly felt like the pivotal moment the Steelers would point to as the catalyst of the remainder of their season. In order to win, the Steelers were going to have to score points, like the analysts have been projecting, to cushion themselves against the matchup with Dez Bryant, the Cowboys' star number 88 receiver, and the game's best security blanket in Jason Witten. Though Prescott and Elliott were taking the NFL by storm, it was my belief their play wasn't worth a drop until they faced a hard-nosed championship caliber team, like the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Traditionally, the Stillers punished rookie quarterbacks; Pat White, the highly touted prospect from West Virginia, was knocked unconscious by Ike Taylor in 2010 and never returned to take another NFL snap. This was going to be Dak Prescott's 'welcome to the NFL' moment, and Ezekiel Elliott was going to be punched in the mouth by a stout Steel front.
Heinz Field had a playoff atmosphere as any game against the Dallas Cowboys evokes a sense of nostalgia, thinking back to the three times the franchises met to decide Super Bowls X, XIII and XXX, in which the Stillers have a two games to one lead. Though a record crowd of 67,737 fans featured a mass of Terrible Towel yellow, Cowboys faithful were heard loud and clear during some of the contest's most important moments. For the first half, the Stillers were controlling the game. Despite an 83 yard check-down pass to Ezekiel Elliott, Pittsburgh had forced a fumble on Prescott, thanks to Anthony Chickillo, and had bottled up many of Elliott's running lanes. However, football is a game of four quarters and this game came down to a matter of will.
You could see how badly the respective players on the two teams wanted to win. In back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter, two former college teammates at Ohio State re-acquainted themselves on the gridiron, as Elliott flipped over a blitzing Ryan Shazier before reaching Prescott to showcase his skills as a pass-blocker. As if to mimic Stephen Curry in last year's NBA playoffs saying, "I'm here. I'm back," Shazier came back pounding through the hole to blow up his Buckeye brethren for a six yard loss. It seemed like the Steelers had a counter-punch to every Cowboys jab. After their offensive line created time for Prescott to throw a dime to Dez Bryant, over a hypnotized Artie Burns, the Steelers marched down-field for Le'veon Bell's second touchdown of the day. And when Dallas' offensive front again paved the way for number 21 to walk into the end zone for a second time to take the lead 29-24 with 1:55 left on the clock, no one at Heinz Field believed Big Ben would be stopped on a game-sealing drive. Reporters in the press box said resoundingly, "These are the games the Steelers always find a way to win." The fake spike to paralyze the defense as we watched Roethlisberger toss a 15 yard dart to Antonio Brown on what looked like a routine practice rep, symbolized check-mate. Unfortunately, Dallas' rookie duo is very real and here to stay for quite some time. Forty-two seconds and a face-mask penalty on Sean Davis was all the Cowboys needed for Elliott to scamper, untouched, for a 32 yard game-winning touchdown.
To all the Dallas Cowboys fans pumping their chests: please remember yinz ain't shit until you win another ring to match the Black n' Yellow's tally of SIX. But in all seriousness, yinz should really enjoy the kind of season yinz are having. It appears that Sunday's victory was the validation Jerry Jones needed to finally determine whether Tony Romo would take over the reins from Prescott because Romo's address to the media today, as a backup, was given with the utmost respect. The sky is the limit for yinz team. That vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense is going to test you come January, but yinz should be thinking Super Bowl.
As for the Pittsburgh Stillers, we aren't in any kind of shape to contend for a Super Bowl championship. We have shown flashes of how good we can be, and Lord knows come the post-season, every team looking at the Stillers should be fearful, but we must first become a more consistent and disciplined ball-club. Our offense can score fifty points per game, but we will not be able to finish football games until our defense plays to the Steel Curtain caliber. Luckily, we have put ourselves in this kind of predicament before. In the 2005 playoffs, the Steelers became the first six-seed to win a football championship, and last year following a loss to the Seahawks, we had to win out the regular season to make it to the post-season--shout out the Buffalo Bills for helping make that happen. The loss to the Cowboys didn't squash our playoff chances altogether, as games against NFC opponents do not tabulate into the AFC conference standings. But sitting in ninth place at 4-5, it looks like the only route to the big dance is to win our division, which is currently controlled by the Ravens. So long as we win every remaining divisional game against the Browns (two games) and the Bengals (one game), Christmas day at Heinz Field against Baltimore looks to be the AFC North championship game.