How was Christmas?
The thrilling loss to the now 13-2 Dallas Cowboys in Week 9 really was the catalyst for the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers' season. As they head into 2017 with one game left to close out the regular season, the Steelers have welded together a six-game winning streak and an impressive AFC North championship in a Christmas Classic.
There's something that happens inside that Stillers locker room, when the air gets colder and guys start putting on hand warmers. Maybe its the "cheerleader" talk Terry Bradshaw derides, but when the battle for playoff positioning becomes imminent, the Stillers get down to business. By December and January, teams have battled roughly two-thirds of an NFL season, players are nagged by lingering injuries and divisional match-ups heighten competitive stakes. Undoubtedly, some teams falter, like the self-destruct Cincinnati Bengals. However, there are some teams--the Steelers and other blue blood franchises like the Packers and Patriots--that are able to fine tune their games and play like teams in the hunt for a Lombardi Trophy. In the last fifteen years, since 2001, the Steelers have gone 57-19 in the months of December and January, winning 75% of their games. Considering the numerous coaching and positional changes throughout this time span (e.g., head coaches Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin and quarterbacks Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox to Ben Roethlisberger), this mentality of December football is not just a byproduct of key personnel, but rather a tenet of Stillers football.
Over the last six games, the Steelers have worked to become a cohesive team, balancing offensive weaponry and a rapidly maturing defensive unit. There were games against the Browns, the Colts on Thanksgiving, and the Bills in which they dominated both sides of the ball. Holding Cleveland to a meager nine points was due in-part to the Steelers' trio of rookies (Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave) making impact plays, like Burns' interception and Hargraves' awareness to jump on a loose football in the endzone, forced by a streaking Ryan Shazier. Antonio Brown was inside Lucas Oil Stadium having a feast as he caught three touchdown passes, while Le'veon Bell watched a Bills defense cautiously look for footing as he scampered for 236 yards and three scores in snow-covered Buffalo.
Some games in December though, were a battle of attrition, requiring the Stillers to really grind out each victory. In games against the Giants and Bengals it became clear that I had mis-spoke about our veteran players lacking the consistency to make game-changing plays. Moreover, it was evident that the younger players on the roster, who had been ordered to "grow up" by the Steelers coaching staff, had finally internalized the message. The Steelers offense was clicking in the Week 13 match against the New York Giants. Tight-end Ladarius Green gave Big Ben a formidable option down-field, forcing the secondary to alleviate some of its pressure on Antonio Brown. The Steelers never surrendered the lead to Eli Manning and jittery Odell Beckham Jr. because of two major red zone interceptions by ten-year veteran, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Rookie of the Year, Sean Davis.
With a week remaining until the showdown with the Ravens, the Stillers tried to not overlook the little brother of the North, the Cincinnati Bengals. A game that still had boiled-over emotions from last year's AFC Wild Card game, the Bengals were looking to make our playoff path that much more arduous. By half-time, the Steelers had been making the same mistakes that had put themselves on a four-game losing skid mid-season. A 20-9 deficit was highlighted by undisciplined football. The Stillers were going to start the game off on the right foot with a three-and-out forced by Stephon Tuitt's pressure on Bengal's quarterback Andy Dalton, until he was called for a face-mask penalty, allowing the drive to continue and the Bengals to score a field goal. The next time the Bengals had the ball, Artie Burns was called for a 39-yard pass interference on receiver Brandon Lafell, setting up Dalton's one-yard QB sneak. Just when Stillers Nation thought the Black n' Yellow to be waking up, a 13-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown was called back due to Le'veon Bell's chop block. Without Chris Boswell's fifteen points through six kicks travelings a total of 262 yards, the Steelers would not have been able to come from behind and win. After the half, roles had been switched and the Bengals didn't score another point. Jeremy Hill, the player who fumbled the Wild Card win away for the Bengals, tried to rip apart a stray Terrible Towel after a touchdown in the first quarter. He was held to 2.2 yards per carry for the day. Ryan Shazier's sack, Lawrence Timmons second interception of the year, and Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns' pass deflections halted four consecutive Bengals drives in the second half. The Stillers offense continued to fight the length of the Bengals defensive front and rabid play by Vontaze Burfict by pounding the ball and taking the open shots. Despite the relatively tame performances by Bell, Brown and Big Ben who only combined for one touchdown, the Stillers responded with 18 unanswered points, capping the game off with Eli Rogers' game-winning grab.
Christmas Day. Steelers vs. Ravens. Nike Color Rush uniforms. AFC North crown.
The gravity and theatrics of the second round fight was known well in advance of the Steelers late season surge. I think football fans were anticipating this game because it's rare to see football on television; there have only been 18 Christmas football games in the NFL's history. I know the TV is traditionally reserved for premier NBA basketball during the holiday, but not this year. When you add on the level of animosity some players have for each other--a la Mike Mitchell and Steve Smith Sr., plus the fact that the Ravens have beaten the Steelers in games decided by a touchdown or less, it was hard to think this game would be anything other than a classic.
After a surgical first drive by Bell, topped off by Big Ben's 20-yard touchdown pass to Xavier Grimble, the Stillers' momentum was halted by drive-killing penalties, chunk plays and an equally hungry opponent. The game turned into a typical rivalry scrap. Both teams were on the scoreboard within the first ten minutes of the game, yet by half-time it was 7-6. Honestly, I don't know that a comeback victory is necessary if Big ben doesn't throw two costly interceptions within the first three drives of the second half. Roethlisberger is a gunslinger though, and sometimes gunslingers get shot. What was an errant throw on the first play of the third quarter and a telegraphed interception by Alabama's CJ Mosley resulted in a ten point lead for Baltimore with 14:18 left in the fourth quarter. Having just come back from an eleven point margin the week before in hostile territory, it was time for the Stillers to make their run.
We learned that the 2016 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers know how to play Stiller football. When the stakes become the highest and the game is on the line, the Stillers put on their hard hats and we watch them forge a victory. The Steel Curtain didn't hold in the fourth, but this game was going to be determined by the last team with the ball. Ben threw his interceptions for the day, what remained in the final ten minutes was quick precision. Number 7 completed eleven of twelve passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns. The offense started to move down-field quickly just like the very first drive of the game. 38 times did Ben Roethlisberger lead the Steelers on a game winning drive, but his 39th--the most since 2004--will be replayed a thousand times over. Big Ben hit six different receivers, including three or more receptions by Bell, Brown and tight end Jesse James. No play comes close to Antonio Brown's championship clinching extension, though. AB is a playmaker; his four punt returns for touchdowns and 50 touchdown catches are evidence of this fact. That play though, the awareness running towards Roethlisberger to catch the ball while surviving a hit levied by two Ravens cemented his place as the game's best wide receiver.
It would be remiss of me to not attribute any of the success of the Steelers' season to Mike Tomlin. Last week, Terry Bradshaw voiced his opinion about the Steelers head coach on Fox Sports. Not only did he say Mike Tomlin is not a great coach, but he also went as far to say he didn't understand the kind of input he had on game planning as well as the x's and o's side of the game. The Stillers' four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback saw Coach Tomlin as a "cheerleader guy", someone who was for the morale of the players. Though he is not wrong, because what sets Mike Tomlin apart from the rest of NFL coaches is his ability to motivate and relate to players, the way in which he opined diminished Tomlin's value to the franchise. Aside from reading and reacting to the pulse of his squad, Tomlin knows the schematics of the game. As defensive coordinator of the 2006 Minnesota Vikings, he called a defense that only allowed 985 rushing yards all season. The only other defense to do that was Super Bowl XXXV champion Baltimore Ravens. Inside Pittsburgh headquarters, Coach T is quizzing all players on game scenarios every Wednesday in an entire team meeting. Pro Bowl Center, Maurkice Pouncey, even talked about how he and the head coach were discussing quicker blocking tactics for different rushing defensive tackles. "He coaches a lot," Jesse James said.
Is Mike Tomlin a great coach? I’m not sure he would even answer yes to that question, as he called himself a “working stiff” in his Tuesday press conference. He reserved the “great” label for six-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick and five-time NBA champion Greg Popovich. The fact is though, in a league where it is so hard to find a productive and consistent head coach, let alone one that doesn’t get fired the day after the season ends, Mike Tomlin is a great coach. Five divisional championships, one Lombardi Trophy on two trips to the Super Bowl, over one hundred wins, and zero losing seasons—something Belichick can’t even claim—is what Coach Tomlin has accomplished in ten short seasons.
As a Steelers fan, I was surprised when Bradshaw spoke so freely. That’s his job to share his opinions as a sports analyst, and he has every right to opine about the Pittsburgh Steelers given all he has contributed to the franchise. But I was surprised because I thought Stillers Nation past, present and future supported the Black n’ Yellow on the field at all times. I don’t understand how one of our brethren could speak so discouragingly when we’re in the midst of the hunt for our seventh Lombardi trophy. I don’t comprehend why Terry ignored the facts of his own team.
There’s no hiding Mike Tomlin is an African American football coach, and there is no hiding the bread crumbs of the NFL’s institutional discrimination from the quarterback position all the way up to the helm of the franchise (Art Shell was the NFL’s first African American head coach for the Oakland Raiders in 1989). No matter Tomlin’s accolades, he will still be viewed through a racial lens; tinted lenses Terry must’ve put on as he read ‘STILLERS Kings of the North’ in his Monday morning paper.