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The Pittsburgh Steelers are in win-now mode... and that's a good thing!
They've received a ton of criticism but the Steelers are correct to do everything in their power to win games in 2021. (Sean McDermott was right to go for it last night, too.)
Mike Tomlin was livid in the moment.
Mike Tomlin was livid after the fact.
For good reason, too. This was yet another seismic gaffe by the NFL’s officials. Yet again, the men in stripes decided to inject themselves into the national spotlight by reviewing a clear D.K. Metcalf fumble and gift-wrapping a field-goal attempt to the Seattle Seahawks with a precious three seconds left in regulation Sunday night.
“I hated it,” the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach said. “I cannot believe that game was stopped to confirm catch, no catch in that moment.
“It was an embarrassment.”
In a sloppy game full of ups and downs, one young cornerback being groomed in this defense made what should’ve been the play of the game. Cornerback James Pierre punched the ball out of Metcalf’s grasp, Seattle recovered and, heck no, the game shouldn’t have been stopped. This is a coach and a franchise built on this sort of finish, on a player America hasn’t heard of yet — but soon will — sending a team 2,000 miles home.
Of course, all was proven right in the universe. Star T.J. Watt, whom the team made the richest defensive player in the sport, forced another fumble in overtime to tee up a game-winning field goal and a 23-20 Steelers win.
From the outside, I get it, this is an easy team to pepper with insults. It’s easy to ridicule the Steelers as buffoons for sticking with a 39-year-old quarterback going on 59 given the way he’s played his entire Hall-of-Fame career. Rolling out Ben Roethlisberger for yet another season reeks of sentimentality and history tells us it’s never smart to douse your franchise with such a perfume. The best teams plan ahead. Watching the Steelers grind out a very Steelers win on Sunday night, however, I couldn’t help but think that Tomlin and this franchise know exactly what they’re doing.
It’s not time to make room for Lombardi Trophy No. 7 but it’s also not time to prepare the caskets.
The fact that Pittsburgh evened its record to 3-3, gets a bye week and could easily claw to 6-3 by mid-November means something. Actively competing — on the field and in the front office — carries deep-rooted significance to the overall health of a team.
This isn’t a full-throated defense of Roethlisberger, rather the philosophical direction of the franchise.
Roethlisberger still sees the game fine and remains better than any immediate Plan B option last spring, be it Mason Rudolph or Davis Mills or any vet found in the Target bargain bin.
This team was good enough to start last season 11-0 and Roethlisberger did throw 33 touchdowns. In other NFL cities, clinging to such a player would be a sin but the Steelers, more than any team, warrant trust.
Making it known to every single employee that you’re all-in is good for a team’s soul.
The Steelers abhor the long-term ramifications of a reset or anything perceived to be a reset. On paper, gobbling up all of the draft picks imaginable is tempting. Stinking it up for a few years in the name of that magical unknown behind Door No. 1 worked for the Houston Astros and nearly worked for the Philadelphia 76ers, too.
But Sunday panned a microscope over two very different ways of running a franchise.
The first game of the day — in London — was also decided by a field goal in overtime.
Not too long ago, it seemed like the Miami Dolphins were primed for long-term success as GM Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores Pac-Man’d draft picks at every opportunity. Assets were moved. The national media mostly praised Miami. Eventually, it was time to turn draft picks into players and, to date, the Dolphins don’t have much to show for it. We’ll likely look back at the 2020 draft as the tipping moment that got people in Miami fired. All three first-round picks are already colossal mistakes. Selecting Tua Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert will go down as a historic whiff. Tackle Austin Jackson has been more sieve than stalwart at tackle (Justin Jefferson was selected four slots later.) Cornerback Noah Igbinoghene was a healthy scratch to start the season. (Trevon Diggs was selected 21 slots later.)
For good measure, Miami took guard Robert Hunt two picks ahead of Jonathan Taylor in the second round.
Yet if not for a Damien Harris fumble in Week 1, the Dolphins would be 0-6 right now. Across the Atlantic Ocean, they lost to a team in the midst of a 20-game losing streak, a team whose head coach was publicly disgraced two weeks ago.
You bet both Grier and Flores would kill for the culture the Steelers have meticulously built over time.
Most teams would.
Football isn’t a game of numbers. Human emotion drives this game more than anything else. The intensity each player brings to the workplace each day seeps into the very fabric of a franchise — Tomlin gets that. Practices here are more like a war of attrition that weed out the mentally weak. Take it from Vince Williams in the midst of his final season. The language players use with each other. The violence in training camp. The X ‘n O demands on defense. It’s just different here.
Always has been.
A quarterback can miss time here and the train keeps moving. That’s not the case elsewhere.
So, no, the Steelers weren’t going to declare themselves deceased after losing to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card a year ago. Roethlisberger geared up for a 18th season, Alabama workhorse Najee Harris was the 24th overall pick, Watt was inked to a four-year, $112 million contract, the Steelers’ defense reloaded with another wave of homegrown talent and, heck yes, the standard remained the standard as Tomlin loves to repeat. It’s not corny. It’s the reality here. Because on the inside, the thinking does not change. The Steelers have been winning for a good three decades now and sustaining this environment means more than tanking for the mere shot at a franchise quarterback.
This is the same reason Pittsburgh gave those Dolphins a first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, despite losing Roethlisberger to a season-ending thumb injury in 2019. They were heavily criticized then, too, but there are no white flags in Pittsburgh. The trade served as the perfect shot in the arm. Somehow Tomlin got that injury-ravaged, Duck Hodges-quarterbacked team to 8-8. (Here’s an inside look on that season, ICYMI.)
The Steelers haven’t had a losing season since 2003, the year before taking Roethlisberger.
Let this play out.
Tomlin is only 49. They’ll find the next quarterback when it’s time. Maybe the opportunity didn’t present itself last spring so the franchise, simply, did not want to force it. In 2022, after Roethlisberger presumably retires, the Steelers will have the perfect situation to pitch a new potential starter. A guy like, say, Aaron Rodgers will sure like seeing this defense with these receivers and that head coach.
The two even shared a moment in their meeting this season.
In the meantime, OK, Roethlisberger is ranked last on my podcast co-host’s excellent “Eye in the Sky” QB Rankings. Jim Monos is watching every snap of every quarterback and applying his +/- scoring rooted in two decades as an NFL personnel man. After a rough underthrow early Sunday night, we even exchanged a few text messages. Roethlisberger’s labored heave to Diontae Johnson was late and short and, no, Cris Collinsworth would not criticize him. Color commentators rarely ever come close to disparaging legacy quarterbacks. When Roethlisberger was particularly rough in Pittsburgh’s loss to the Packers, former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo also engaged in broadcasting gymnastics.
This win over Seattle won’t be looping on the video board at Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame induction, either.
Such a game is pretty much what the Steelers can expect in 2021.
There was some Good Ben. He can still read a defense. On third and 2 with two minutes left in the first half, Roethlisberger threaded a quick pass to Chase Claypool for five yards to set up a touchdown. On third and 4 into the third quarter — safety Jamal Adams barreling in — Roethlisberger feathered a beauty over a linebacker’s head to Johnson for 14 yards. The next snap, he pumped right and threw left to Johnson for 25 yards. A Steelers field goal made it 17-7.
The Seahawks, of course, roared back in the third quarter to tie it at 17-17.
All of the pressure was thrown back onto Roethlisberger’s shoulders — like old times — and we were treated to Bad Ben.
First, he fumbled. Roethlisberger tried pulling the ball back on a pump fake and, flat-out, dropped the ball. The next drive, he missed Claypool on third down. And with one more shot to break a tie against the Wilson-less Seahawks, taking over at his own 26 with 5:19 left, Roethlisberger drove Pittsburgh into Seattle’s territory and zipped a pass directly off of Adams’ helmet. The self-proclaimed “best in the nation” safety missed the easy pick.
There was a quick return Good Ben. The very next play, Roethlisberger wisely dumped it off to Harris on third down and Harris, who has only gotten better every week, trucked his way upfield to tee up Chris Boswell’s 52-yard field goal.
Seattle, of course, tied it up at 20 on that ridiculous sequence at the end of regulation.
And into overtime, Watt supplied the heroics by swatting the ball out of Geno Smith’s grasp. Boswell banged in a 37-yarder and, right here, is the not-so-glamorous formula to win right now in Pittsburgh. The 2015 Broncos formula. A defense gashed for 101 yards by whatever’s left of Alex Collins obviously has a long way to go but the Steelers have legit stars in Watt and Fitzpatrick and Cam Heyward and the right coaching staff to get this youth up to speed. (And remember how rickety Peyton Manning was at the end?)
Nobody has a better feel for his team than Tomlin. Ex-Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway still remembers defensive meetings being as “confrontational as you’ll ever see” with Tomlin, then a 34-year-old defensive coordinator. He was no buddy-buddy player’s coach.
Tomlin wanted conflict. Healthy conflict.
At the same time, players are also quick to say they can go to Tomlin with any question, any concern, any day. Such is the balance every head coach tries to strike. It’s not easy to talk about #culture without sounding like a corny kindergarten teacher. Here, such rhetoric truly does mean something.
Let’s not forget, these Steelers were the one team to befuddle Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills, too. They sure had enough talent that day — on the road, no less — to smack around a team that then proceeded to outscore its opponents 156-41 the next four games.
Tomlin will forever coach this roster up to the competition. Next to Bill Belichick, nobody’s better at this.
The playoffs are absolutely a realistic goal for the Steelers and, here, it’s also bigger than that.
It’s about competing for decades.
Guts are a good thing
The Buffalo Bills lost in heartbreaking fashion Monday night to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
This one certainly left a mark and Sean McDermott will catch plenty of criticism for not kicking a chip-shot field goal to force overtime. The take here? McDermott was 100 percent correct to go for it on fourth and inches from the Titans’ 3-yard line. Quarterback Josh Allen couldn’t collect his feet quick enough, the left side of the line collapsed and the Titans won this game ripe with AFC playoff implications, 34-31.
And this was the right call. For countless reasons.
By that point, the Bills’ defense was clearly running on “E” and getting Hulk-smashed by Derrick Henry. There was zero stopping this Titans’ offense. Other than the one play before halftime and the kneeldowns at the end, Tennessee scored on six straight possessions. If anything, McDermott’s mistake was settling for 24- and 28-yard field goals in the first half and, then, slowing Buffalo’s roll that final drive by calling a timeout. He actually did Titans coach Mike Vrabel a huge favor by hitting pause.
More than anything last offseason — adding pass rushers on defense, getting cute with receivers on offense — the No. 1 item on the Bills’ to-do list out of 2020 was for the head coach himself to look in the mirror and realize he needed to coach with more guts in 2021. Buffalo played scared in the AFC Championship against the Chiefs and that mentality will never get this team over the hump.
It might win the Bills a few division titles, but never the Super Bowl in this modern era.
Against the Titans, at least at the end, the Bills played to win. They put the ball in the hands of their 6-foot-5, 237-pound MVP candidate quarterback with 22 seconds left.
The Bills now have a bye week to lick their wounds before dates with the Dolphins, Jaguars and Jets. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be 7-2 before entering the teeth of the schedule.
And the fact that players now know McDermott trusts them in such a moment will be a good thing in the long haul.
The one player capable of ending 25 years of title-less disappointment in Dallas was Dak Prescott. He is uniquely qualified and we keep seeing why. His performance in the Cowboys’ 35-29 overtime win over the Patriots is right up there with the best of his career. Prescott converted a clutch fourth-down to keep a game-tying drive alive in regulation, rolled right to hit CeeDee Lamb for the game-winner in OT and finished with 445 yards and three touchdowns against the greatest coach ever. You could see Prescott mentally figure out what Belichick was throwing at him in real time. Now, he just needs to stay healthy.
Baltimore’s ability to overcome its apocalyptic rash of injuries isn’t being discussed nearly enough. Lamar Jackson keeps lifting up everyone around him. And in a 34-6 win over the Chargers, vet backs Devonta Freeman, Le’Veon Bell and Latavius Murray — “the old Temptations,” as James Lofton described to us — combined for 115 yards and three touchdowns. What a job by the defense, too. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale confused and disrupted Justin Herbert in a way we have not seen before. If this defense truly is turning a corner, there isn’t a better team in the AFC.
Patrick Mahomes floated a ridiculous interception straight up into the air at the end of the first half against the WFT… and then turned it on like old times. Who knows if this Chiefs defense can figure things out on the fly but Mahomes isn’t going to be a problem.
Once again, we see that the Arizona Cardinals are for real. This time, A.J. Green proved he’s far from finished. The 33-year-old wide receiver led Arizona in receiving with five catches for 79 yards with a touchdown. This offense just hits you in so many different ways. Arizona is the toast of the NFC. There’s just as much grit as glam on Kliff Kingsbury’s roster.
Should Derrick Henry get more MVP buzz? Probably. He single-handedly took the game over last night. Vrabel put it best in saying the team just hops on Henry’s back. Barring injury, the running back shouldn’t have too much of a problem breaking the NFL rushing record in this new 17-game schedule.
What a scary moment in the Steelers/Seahawks game when Darrell Taylor laid motionless on the grass. I still don’t know how football players can line up to violently smack each other around again after a chilling scene like this. The great news is that a CT scan cleared Taylor — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the injury is more to Taylor’s shoulder than neck and that the defensive end, believe it or not, has a chance to play Monday night against the Saints. Unbelievable.
A quick programming note. The “Ty & Bob Pod” will be posted Wednesday AM instead of Tuesday as usual. We had a bit of a technical issue this morning but the Packers fans subscribing to Go Long can expect to get their fix a day later. Once again, Green Bay took it to Chicago. Rodgers made sure to remind everyone he’s been quite successful against the Bears, too.
One more note: “The Isaiah McKenzie Show” will continue next week with a LIVE show at Mister’s Bar & Lanes in East Aurora, N.Y. We’ll record on Monday night at 6 p.m. Paid subscribers get first dibs on a reservation — just note your email address in the comments section to confirm. Hope to see you there! McKenzie, of course, was nearly the hero last night. He took a kick 101 yards to the house with 3 minutes left… only for the return to get called back on holding.
Miss Ep 2? Catch up right here if you’d like: