Bill Cowher used to say that an NFL team found its identity in the first four to six weeks of the season.
The Steelers played their sixth game yesterday, but the analysis of the Steelers 27-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns yielded little penetrating insight into the true identity of the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Perhaps that’s just as well because it doesn't seem like anyone knows the Steelers true identity yet.
By way of contrast, Steelers Nation knew far more about the 2008 Steelers. Six games into the road that would ultimately end in Super Bowl XLIII, Steelers fans knew this:
- The Steelers could run over inferior opponents (week 1, Houston)
- Though it would struggle to find rhythm, Arians’ offense would deliver in the clutch, and Mike Tomlin would never coach scared (week 2, Cleveland)
- The Steelers could fight, sustain losses, but ultimately win street fights (Baltimore, week 4)
- Ben Roethlisberger was an Iron Man who could lead his team to overcome injuries as the Steelers emerged as one of the NFL’s toughest teams (Jacksonville, week 5)
Comparatively speaking, we still know little about the 2009 Steelers, but the victory over the Browns perhaps added a little more focus.
The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers, After Six Games
Thus far the 2009 Steelers have shown themselves as a team that:
- Has progressively run the ball more effectively...
...until yesterday, when the top two running backs totaled less than 100 yards and averaged 3.6 and 3.7 yards a carry – against one of the NFL’s weakest rush defenses.
- Is learning to win games on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm...
...except against Detroit, when 3 pass-dominated series in the fourth quarter led to 3 punts.
- Has begun to provide its quarterback with unprecedented protection...
...unless they're trying to protect leads in the 4th quarter, then the line is prone to giving up consecutive sacks, as happened against both Detroit and Cleveland.
- Shuts down opposing offenses of all shapes and sizes...
...if one can set aside the fact that the defense's apparent obligation to give up at least one quick touchdown drive per game, regardless of whether that quarterback is Philip Rivers, Derrick Anderson, or someone in between.
- Has impressively ranked special teams, in statistical terms...
....that have let opposing teams back into games by giving up fumbles on punts that should have been fair caught, getting caught asleep at the switch on on-sides kicks, and allowing 98 yard kickoff returns
- Has recently begun to ratchet up its numbers in the takeaway category...
...only to see the offense extend the opposition the courtesy of giving the ball back.
Tantalize, According to Webster
Webster’s on-line dictionary defines tantalize this way
Tantalize: to tease or torment by or as if by presenting something desirable to the view but continually keeping it out of reach.
And that is exactly what these 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers have done thus far. They’ve shown them capable of dominating on offense through the air and on the ground. Their defense has been less solid, but they’ve nonetheless flashed greatness against the run, in coverage and in pressuring the quarterback.
But six weeks into the 2009 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have yet to play a complete game.
The turnover carnival at the end of the third quarter provides the perfect metaphor. Each time the Steelers have been in position to dominate an opponent, they end up throwing banana peels in front of themselves.
The tone of this post has admittedly been a bit negative thus far, but it is not Steel Curtain Rising’s intention to throw cold water on the Steelers 3 game winning streak.
To the contrary, I echo the tone sounded Post Gazette’s Ron Cook and Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola after the Detroit game. The cup might not be full, but it is half full.
If the Steelers have not put together a complete football game, they are getting closer to doing so.
Against San Diego, the Steelers special teams gave one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses an invitation to get back in a game whose result should have been cut and dried. But the Steelers offense, then the defense, responded.
The offense may have stumbled in attempting to KO Detroit, but the pass rush delivered when it counted.
While the special team’s gaffes and the fumbles against the Browns succeeded in unnerving, the Steelers saw to it that they did not succeed in letting Cleveland back in the game -- Pittsburgh might have slipped on the banana peels, but they did not fall.
Likewise, the difficulty running against the Browns disappoints, but the Steelers dominated Cleveland to the tune of 543 yards to 197 yards, 28 first downs to 12, 36:46 in time of possession to 23:14.
Only an ingrate quibbles at those numbers.
Next Up, Minnesota
Choose your cliché. With each week the focus on the Steelers identity gets a little sharper. With each game the Steelers add a few more pieces to the puzzle.
All true. But all of this comes with a caveat.
Mike Tomlin had better make sure the puzzle pieces fall in the right slots this week. Because right now, at 6-0, Bett Farve, Brad Childress, and Adrian Peterson's puzzle provides a much clearer picture of who the Vikings are as a team.