Purgatory. Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t. Somewhere between Hell and the sublime.
Ladies and gentlemen: your 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers!
I am an not an NFL coach, but if I were, I’d try to build a team based around making the best decisions for each player. It is hard to treat human beings on an individual basis, because human nature pushes us to categorize, stereotype, and generally use lazy managing/development skills. But being a great manager/coach/builder of teams requires being 60 different coaches to 60 different players.
One guy needs a daddy, one needs a drill sergeant, one needs a friend, one needs a hug, and one needs it all. If you want to get the most out of your players, you can’t afford to have a cookie-cutter approach to people.
And so it is that the head coach who has been through the custom-made approaches to the range of players represented by Chris Kemoeatu, Chris Hoke, Lev’eon Bell, Max Starks, Ike Taylor, Santonio Holmes, James Harrison, and Antonio Brown faces one of the more challenging cases he’ll ever face: the developmental QB with a lot of expectations and draft investment who simultaneously needs to play to become a finished product and who desperately needs to sit the hell down. A context where playing the guy you need to play to find out if he’s got what it takes but playing said guy makes it less likely to win games at the moment–and could possibly be a danger to himself and others. Where the team has a chance to be a playoff team OR you have a chance to develop your young QB and see what he can do, but probably not both.
As I said after Mason Rudolph’s 3rd largely inexcusable interception of the game last night, if the Steelers braintrust and his head coach send him back out there after this, then they are more interested in seeing what kind of QB Rudolph is than they are in winning the game in a playoff hunt. What an awful, awful position for the team and the coach to be in. It’s to invest a top 100 pick in a QB and then have to decide of much more of this garbage you’re going to take before you pull him. I feel for whoever’s involved in that decision.
I also feel for Rudolph. He desperately needed someone to put him out of his misery (ironically, Myles Garrett almost did that for realz a little later) and they just kept ignoring his pleas and sending him back out for more humiliation. He needs to sit and regroup but I don’t think there’s anyone who can figure out a way to spin it so it doesn’t seem like a failure.
Last night Browns game featured lots of injuries–typical for a Thursday Night game in the league of the “personal safety mandate”. The Steelers weren’t particularly sharp playing on a short week on the road, their defense took a few roundhouse punches before stabilizing, their skill players weren’t making a lot of special plays to bail out their offense or QB, the run game wasn’t good enough. But the game comes down to one thing that can’t be argued: receivers were open, throws were there to be had, the QB either didn’t make them or made them a few counts too late and delivered them wildly inaccurately. He made the Browns pass rush look superhuman––there was time to make plays but not time to play the deliberate and overly slow-to-process game Rudolph is now becoming famous for. If you wait too long to throw the ball, it makes everything difficult.
Even worse than the slow processing, bad reads, and poor accuracy directly causing problems, the trickle-down effects are terrible. The opposing defenses are packing it in near the line of scrimmage, clogging running lanes, blanketing short routes, and generally bringing the Steelers once unstoppable offense to a complete standstill worse than the German tanks in the Russian mud of late 1941.
Oh, there were other players who didn’t make plays they needed to make. James Conner took the first carry of the game right around the Browns defense, needing only to shoulder away and or generally run over the famously contact-averse CB Greedy Williams. Instead, Connor was indecisive––perhaps favoring his injured shoulder–– and went down in the backfield from a weak ankle tackle from Williams.
The Steelers scripted plays, as successfully predicted here last week, followed with a second run into the heart of a packed-in defense, offering an opportunity for revenge to Morgan Burnett, who did more on the opening series that he did all of last year in black and gold. Burnett stopped Conner, then on the next play came in free on a blitz that offered one of the better efforts of Rudolph’s night. Mason spun away cleanly from the blitz, rolled left, and looked to have a big completion at hand to Diontate Johnson… right until he never saw Johnson and threw the ball into the home team’s bench.
You could have watched the first series for each team, turned off the TV, and saved yourself all kinds of trouble.
Cleveland reverted the Steelers defense back to pre-Minkah, gashing it for several long pass plays–they kind that have been shut down all year on the opening drive and virtually nonexistent with Minkah back there. Steven Nelson, left in deep third coverage 1 on 1 vs Odell Beckham, had no chance when the blitz didn’t get home and the (near) TD gave OBJ a chance to gloat over Mike Tomlin’s preseason press conference where he said “we have to prepare for great players every week” and Beckham took offense.
As for the rest, no need to postmortem a whole game full of poor decisions, simplified game plan, tough passes that should have been caught anyway, concussion balls, headhunting, and generally unwatchable offensive play. Only 2 scores or less down for most of the game, this had the feeling of a blowout because watching it you had zero confidence the offense was going to make a play, let alone a string of them. And I think you could see that lack of confidence on the faces and in the body language of the Steelers players. That’s the best argument I can make for sitting Rudolph down, at least for the time being.
When Mark Barron is covering the RB out of the backfield, he’s as good at it as I’ve ever seen. At virtually every other part of the game he’s not just poor, he’s a liability. Bush is swimming at this point––making a few plays but it looks like he’s hit the proverbial rookie wall. I’m not going to make judgments on him just yet, but the practical problem is those are your two starters at ILB and there are issues with everyone currently behind them, now that Ulysses Gilbert is on IR. Along with QB play and injuries, ILB play will be a contributing factor to the death of the 2019 Steelers, once the autopsy results are complete. There’s not a whole lot they can do, although playing Vince Williams from the get-go vs a team that depends on a run game would be one change I would make. It’s choose your poison with those ILBs–– one guy can’t cover, the other can only cover RBs, the third guy is a rookie at the end of a long train that started in the summer of 2018 and has just about rolled into the station, from the looks of it. At least Vince is tremendous against the run.
In general, I’m not reading too much into a defensive effort half a week removed from a dominating effort that likely sapped some of their superpowers. They did shut the door for a long stretch of the game, continuing to get the ball back and give their offense a chance to get back in the game. It wasn’t until the 3rd terrible interception that the defense’s dam finally broke, as a defense’s fortifications often will when they sense the game is over. Even they are not immune from the young QB’s struggles.
To paraphrase our old friend Iron_City, “Fix the QB, fix the problem.”
Unfortunately, the Steelers decision-makers have more than one objective. They’d like to continue winning and perhaps even securing a playoff spot. They’d like to see what their young, 3rd-round-invested QB can do in year 2, before he sits for two years and then you have to decide on whether to pay him C$2. They’d like to get the team developed to a Super Bowl-contending unit by the start of 2020, so they are positioned to make a couple of championship-level runs at the end of Ben’s career. The problem is those goals aren’t particularly aligned at the moment. Seeing ‘what their QB has’ is going to lead to more inexplicable losses and will likely kill their playoff hopes. It may even lose the momentum that the defense has built and it surely will stunt the development of the young receivers. Is all of that worth it, just so you can see more of a QB who’s barely shown the flashes that would encourage the desire to see more?