1. The Steelers defense is carrying its share of the load. In 2013, Pittsburgh finished outside the top 10 in total defense for the first time since 1999. And in going through a rebuild on that side of the ball, the Steelers haven’t returned to the top 10 since. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have emerged as elite playmakers on offense, and Pittsburgh’s identity has changed accordingly. So put all that together, and you’ll see why a game like last Sunday in Indianapolis was so significant.
“Honestly, the offense has been carrying the defense, and this team, for a while,” linebacker Ryan Shazier told me after Wednesday’s walkthrough. “And we really respect everything they do, and honestly when we get the opportunity to give back the helping hand that they’ve given us over the years, it feels amazing. Just so they know, ‘Hey, if we’re having a down day, they got us.’”
Ben Roethlisberger threw a pick on Pittsburgh’s first possession, and the Steelers went three-and-out on their second possession, and had a goose egg on the scoreboard at the two-minute warning ahead of halftime. From there? A Bud Dupree sack set up field position so the Steelers could pick up a first down before the break, and a Shazier interception in the fourth quarter deep in Colts territory led to the game-tying points. On the pick itself Shazier showed his own growth—he relied on his preparation and instincts to improvise on the fly—that illustrated how a young group has learned to play faster. Pittsburgh ran a blitz, and Shazier knew tight end Jack Doyle had become Jacoby Brissett’s bailout guy. “I was blitzing, and I couldn’t find a hole to blitz through or an area to get in, and I saw Doyle starting to slide out,” Shazier said. “And my instincts, I saw him sliding down and said, ‘Hey, he’s probably going out, I need to make the tackle.’ So I was going in to cover him, saw the ball tipped a little bit, and last second I dropped my hand down and made sure I secured the ball.”
Now, the 25-and-under Pittsburgh core of Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns and Sean Davis (Cam Heyward and Joe Haden, 28, are the greybeards) may not wind up being a latter-day version of the Troy Polamalu/Ryan Clark/James Harrison/James Farrior. But right now, it’s the foundation for the NFL’s second-ranked defense, so it certainly seems like the group has a chance to get there. And as for restoring an old tradition, Shazier said to me that while “we respect everything those guys did,” these Steelers are “not trying to replicate anyone else, because if you’re replicating someone else, that means you’re trying to be someone else. We want to be our own great defense, we want people to talk about us on our own. And that’s what we’re doing, guys are stepping up and making plays when we need them. We’re trying to shut out everybody that we play.”
It’s worth mentioning, too, that third-year coordinator Keith Butler’s done a nice job developing these guys. On Thursday night against the Titans, Butler’s mentor, ex-Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau, will be on the other sideline.
2. Jerry vs. the NFL: Where things stand. Let’s recap and take stock of the dispute among Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the league office and the six-man compensation committee made up of chairman Arthur Blank (Atlanta), Clark Hunt (Kansas City), Robert Kraft (New England), John Mara (Giants), Bob McNair (Houston) and Art Rooney (Pittsburgh).
The sides have said their piece—including the letter, which The MMQB obtained, that the committee’s outside counsel sent to Jones. The next move centers on whether Jones actually files the papers that he had lawyer David Boies draw up and sues the six owners on the committee. While we wait to see where that goes, there are four things we can point out that have affected the way the situation has been colored over the last few days.
First, there’s Jones’ contention, made on Dallas radio, that the committee has kept owners not serving on the committee in the dark on Roger Goodell’s contract extension. I’m told that committee members “resent the idea” they feel Jones is advancing, that they’ve been trying to pull the wool over their peers’ eyes. Second, Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter apologized for his criticism of the NFL and the anthem protestors, and there are at least some who believe that Jones may have pulled him back after playing a role in his initial stance. Third, the point Jones has made publicly in asking why the rush to finalize Goodell’s deal has at least sparked some conversation. Goodell’s deal expires at the end of the 2018 league year, which is in March 2019, so the league and commissioner are working now with 16 months to spare. The NFL would like to have this finished so it can move forward with game-planning for looming labor and broadcast negotiations, with all those deals expiring in the first three years of the next decade. Whether that’s really necessary, it appears, is a matter of debate.
And fourth, there’s the letter. It asked that the Cowboys owner cease circulating “a document that Mr. Jones personally knows to be outdated” and “drop his misguided litigation threats and media campaign to undermine the committee’s mandate.” The letter ended with this from the committee, via counsel: “We urge Mr. Jones to support the committee deliberations, not attempt to sabotage them. Your client’s antics, whatever the motivation, are damaging the league and reflect conduct detrimental to the league’s best interest.”
The language there is important because “conduct detrimental” is what the NFL would charge Jones with it they were trying to sanction him. That, of course, is fighting fire with fire. And that all brings us back to where we started. Will Jerry sue? Stay tuned.
3. The Bills’ quarterback move is not about where they are, but where they’re going. Buffalo’s decision to bench Tyrod Taylor certainly caught me off guard Wednesday. It caught the quarterback’s teammates by (minor) surprise, too. So why now? Well, rookie Nate Peterman, a fifth-round pick out of Pitt, had shown consistent improvement, and the coaching staff had the information it needed on Taylor to move forward. To figure out the rest, you have to go back to the offseason.
It was then that first-year coach Sean McDermott and his staff expressed a desire to get their own evaluation of Taylor, which led to the renegotiation of the quarterback’s contract. They now have that evaluation, which is largely the same as the one the since-departed scouting staff had—Taylor is an average starting quarterback, one who struggled in the intermediate passing game (particularly between the hashes), and one whom an opponent could stop completely if it could shut down the Bills’ running game. That’s no shot at Taylor. It’s more an illustration of where the ceiling was perceived to be by the old staff, and how those guys felt he limited the team long-term. And that assessment was one the new staff clearly came to agree with.
Meanwhile, with the decision to move forward with the Taylor, the Bills did two things: 1) They built capital to give themselves the ability to be aggressive in getting a franchise quarterback in the 2018 draft (they have two picks in each of the first three rounds in April); and 2) They took a flier on a member of the 2017 class that they spent a fifth-round pick on. And it’s not like the Bills felt like they stole Peterman. My understanding is they had a fifth-round grade on him ahead of the draft, which is to say they got him right where they valued him. But he has shown enough progress that it makes sense for Buffalo to get a look at him in games before they put together their strategy for stocking the position for 2018. And that look starts Sunday in Los Angeles against the Chargers.
4. Patriots benefit from who they are. Watching players in Green Bay rush to the defense of the team’s medical staff, and in particular Dr. Pat McKenzie, should tell you all you need to know about how they felt about Martellus Bennett’s final days as a Packer. Players normally don’t get in other players’ business when it comes to injuries, and trust between teams’ medical staffs and players isn’t always high. But the Packers on social media, and later to the news media, have made their feelings loudly and unanimously clear.
“We all got a good laugh from it,” said veteran linebacker Clay Matthews to the Green Bay press. “It is what it is. Martellus is in their locker room now and not here anymore. … You know what, I think everybody knows the story there, we don’t need to talk about it much more. Like I said, we’re focused on the guys in the locker room, but it’s an interesting story that’ll probably be talked about for a while.”
So it seems the consensus in Green Bay is that Bennett bent the truth to smear a doctor who’s worked with the Packers for 27 seasons. Whether that’s what actually happened or not, though, the Patriots pulled on a lever they’ve found well-worn over the years. Three years ago LeGarrette Blount quit on the Steelers and was cut, and the Patriots scooped him off the scrap heap when he was radioactive to just about everyone else, largely because they knew how he’d fit in their program. He wound up rushing for 148 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC title game two months later. Same deal here. Bennett informed teams he needed surgery, and that plus all the baggage he’s carried from a personality standpoint (there’s a reason he’s been on five teams) meant there was little interest around the league when he hit the waiver wire. That created the opening for him to slip through the cracks to the Patriots, 30th in the waiver order at the time. Those Patriots—who, again, knew how an available player with problems would fit in their framework—were waiting with open arms.
As a result, they now get serious Rob Gronkowski insurance at less than a half-million dollars for the rest of the year (plus some bonus money). Bennett, in the process, didn’t do much to burnish an already checkered reputation. But with a shot at another ring, I’d bet he doesn’t care much about that.