The Steelers' Attitude and Depth Have Them 11–0 Despite 2020's Challenges

They've lost players to injury, they lost their bye week, they waited around for their Thanksgiving game to be rescheduled. But through it all, the Steelers just keep beating everyone. Plus, open jobs in Detroit and Jacksonville, a further look at Bud Dupree's injury, power rankings and more.
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Rob Spillane, in so many ways, is emblematic of the whole 2020 season.

We knew going in that this year was going to be about teams’ depth, resilience and ability to uphold a certain standard through whatever came in the Year of COVID-19, and this undrafted, practice-squad alum of a Steelers linebacker represents all of that. And with his team at 11–0, and coming off a strange, uneven 19–14 win over archrival Baltimore in the first edition of Wednesday Afternoon Football, Spillane went all the way back there, when we were talking about the 2020 season in the abstract, to explain how his team got here.

“I think it started at Day 0,” Spillane said, from the winning locker room, early Wednesday evening. “The first day of training camp, Coach Tomlin laid it in front of us: This is necessary business in 2020, and we need to look at it as our winning edge, something we’re gonna do better than the rest of the league. Like I said, our organization, our coaches, our staff have done a great job of getting us everything we need to make sure we’re not breaking protocols, making sure we’re in line with everything, staying socially distant.

“I’m just proud to be part of this organization. So many great people.”

robert-spillane-steelers

The Steelers’ plan for 2020 didn’t include Spillane leading all inside linebackers in snaps played (he was in on 44 to Vince Williams’s 33) in a crucial December game. It didn’t include Spillane being second only to T.J. Watt in tackles on that stage, nor would many have called him being the example Mike Tomlin would use the day after, when discussing how Pittsburgh would make up for a devastating piece of injury attrition.

But that’s what it is for Steelers, and so they’ve adapted and adjusted. Along those lines, you wouldn’t have much luck finding anyone in their locker room on Wednesday night overjoyed with how the game against the Ravens played out.

Yet, they won, and now they’re 11–0. What’s more, all this is a big reason why they’re 11–0.

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Week 13 is finally here, after Week 12 took an actual week to complete. Here’s what we have for you in this week’s GamePlan …

• A look at the attractiveness of the newly-open positions in Detroit and Jacksonville.

• The impact of the aforementioned injury, to Bud Dupree.

• Power rankings!

But we’re starting with the Steelers, coming off a win that eliminated the defending division champion Ravens from the AFC North race, and again showed what Pittsburgh’s made of.

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At least on paper, there was a lot for the Steelers to hang their hat on Wednesday night.

The offense overcame a rough start and was able to grind out tough yards behind second-year back Benny Snell on the ground, while Ben Roethlisberger threw for 266 yards and made clutch throws on the game’s final possession to put Baltimore away. Before the Ravens’ final possession, the defense had held the visitors to 160 yards, registered a pick-six and prevented them from throwing for a single first down all afternoon.

Was it always pretty? It was not. The Steelers’ second drive stalled in the red zone, and Ben Roethlisberger threw a pick on fourth-and-goal from the one. Ray-Ray McCloud muffed a punt. The defense yielded a 70-yard touchdown to Hollywood Brown late that gave the Ravens life in the waning moments—which was part bad coverage, part bad angles taken.

But given the circumstances, all that was understandable. This game was initially supposed to be played on Thanksgiving night. Then, Sunday at 1:15 p.m. ET. Then, Tuesday in prime time. And then, finally, on Wednesday afternoon. So if the guys out there weren’t sharp, it might be O.K. to give them a break.

Yet …

"We're happy for the win, not real happy with the way we played today,” Roethlisberger told NBC’s Michele Tafoya.

“It was just bad by all parties involved, man,” Tomlin added. “Coaches first, players second. … We make no excuses, we seek no comfort, we didn’t play well or coach well tonight.”

And that sentiment was widespread.

“One-hundred percent,” Spillane affirmed. “[Tomlin’s] the leader of this team, of this organization, with Mr. Rooney. They do a great job of putting us on the correct path that we need to go forward on. I trust them wholeheartedly. We weren’t proud of the way we played tonight. We left a lot on the field, and anytime you do that you want to get in the lab tomorrow morning and figure out the mistakes you did make, clean it up and be ready for Washington on Monday night.”

So what gives?

Maybe some of this is performative. But my sense is that more of it is actually how the Steelers have made it to this point in the first place, where they, as Tomlin said at the start of camp, have turned their circumstances, and the circumstances everyone has been dealt, into their edge over most other teams.

Tomlin knows, too, that it won’t end here. His team had its bye week basically lifted from it as a result of the Titans’ outbreak earlier in the year, and this situation took away what teams routinely refer to as the “mini-bye”—when players generally get time off coming out of a Thursday night game. And now, because of a situation they had no hand in, the Steelers will play on consecutive short weeks, getting a five-day run-up to the Washington game, then six days before playing the Bills on Sunday night in Week 14.

After that, tentatively, things should normalize a little. But by then, the team will have logged a lot of mileage. So how are they managing that? Spillane took us through some of it.

Pulling on the past. Without excuses to leverage, players have looked back at their own experiences to draw strength. Spillane’s came from a flood (yes, an actual flood).

“I’d actually been through a similar situation in college where our field fully flooded, six feet deep, and we didn’t think we were gonna be able to play, and we ended up playing the next day,” Spillane said. “Nobody was ready for that game. So now, I told myself—expect to play, expect to play when the game is scheduled, expect that it’s gonna be on, prepare yourself like you’re gonna be playing. And if it doesn’t come, recalibrate and get focused for the next scheduled game.”

You can look it up—there are some wild pictures backing Spillane’s story up. It was his senior year at Western Michigan, and the Broncos were upset 14–13 by Akron.

Staying loose. The truth is, the Steelers spent a good chunk of time readying for players (most notably Lamar Jackson) who wouldn’t play on Wednesday afternoon. And just as the players had to be flexible in getting themselves physically ready to go, they had to do the same mentally, with Ravens coming off the lineup card by the day over the last week.

“We know there’s gonna be 11 guys out there on the field—11 capable NFL players,” Spillane said. “Whether it’s their starters or secondary players, everyone’s dealing with COVID in 2020, so you gotta be prepared and stay light on your toes. As Coach Tomlin says, have a hard-core plan but stay light on your feet. He does a good job of relaying that to all the players on the team and we roll with him.”

And that goes the other way too.

Having everyone ready. Spillane’s a good example of it, in that he’s had to replace star inside linebacker Devin Bush. Another one Tomlin cited on Friday was rookie guard Kevin Dotson, who’s had to make two spot starts in the place of All-Pro lineman David DeCastro. And all this has seemed mostly seamless in large part because the expectations don’t waver.

“From Day 1, I had the trust from my teammates and coaches, so I felt comfortable,” Spillane said. “They told me the first play I got out there, Rob, we trust you, we believe in you, we’ve seen you do this for two years in practice, now it’s your time to go prove it to the world. That meant everything to me. So I’ve been comfortable since Play 1, and I look to continue to grow with these guys as a defense.”

Now, they’ll have to replace Dupree, who tore his ACL against Baltimore and will be replaced by promising third-round pick Alex Highsmith.

The standard is the standard. That’s stealing a line from Tomlin, but it explains why the team feels like it can withstand injuries, and illustrates why blips in wins like the long scoring play by Brown stick with these guys—"and that leaves a sour taste in your mouth and hopefully we can use that as fuel for the next game,” Spillane said.

It’s also why, when I asked about the defense getting back to where the great Steeler defenses of the past have been (and it’s taken about a decade for Pittsburgh to get it back in that position again), Spillane didn’t run from the idea.

“Those were championship defenses, and all we can do is try to get there,” he said. “To me, comparison is the thief of joy. You don’t directly compare. You just enjoy what you do have, and learn from past mistakes and focus on the future. I think if we do that, we can grow into that great defense that’s remembered over the next 10, 20 years. But for right now, we need to just focus on one play at a time, one game at a time.”

***

To deal with what’s next, Spillane told me he planned to get a jump start on his recovery right away. Later on Wednesday night, he said, he’d focus on hydration, get in the sauna, and get in the hot tub, to prepare to run on Thursday and flush his system of the lactic acid built up on game day.

Game day, this week, will be on Monday—which wasn’t the plan to begin with, but is at least more normal than playing on a Wednesday. And all that’s O.K. with the Steelers.

In fact, as they see it, all this stuff might be to their advantage anyway. Or at least that’s the way they drew it and, through this unprecedented year, maybe that’s the one thing that’s gone according to plan.

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Mike Tomlin on the sideline with Ben Roethlisberger, Dionte Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster

POWER RANKINGS

1) Pittsburgh Steelers (11–0): Given the circumstances, I’m hesitant to make a big deal out of anything Wednesday. So let’s just leave the Steelers where they were last week.

2) Kansas City Chiefs (10–1): We’ve seen bursts of just how good the Chiefs can be. One such instance was the first quarter in Tampa. And if Kansas City can be that team more consistently—and I’m not suggesting that means Patrick Mahomes throwing for 800 yards every week, just that they look as put together as they did in that 15 minutes—it’s gonna awfully tough to beat Andy Reid’s crew.

3) New Orleans Saints (9–2): This is another team that, as I see it, was a tough read in Week 13. They were playing against a team with a practice-squad receiver at quarterback. Their own quarterback didn’t look very good, but he didn’t have to, and he’s the backup. And they still won 31–3. This week’s game in Atlanta should be a lot more interesting, given how the Falcons have pulled themselves off the mat behind Raheem Morris, and how they’ll be playing Taysom Hill a second time.

4) Green Bay Packers (8–3): It feels like once you get past the top three in the league, you’re basically in the pack—it’s tough to separate the eight teams that are either 8–3 or 7–4. So the Packers sneak back in based on how explosive they looked in eviscerating the Bears, with the acknowledgement that the defense still needs work.

5) Tennessee Titans (8–3): I just like the Titans’ edge, and think it will, as it did last year, translate really well into January. And I also like that the coaching staff doesn’t overcomplicate anything. Last week, the Colts were without DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry and Bobby Okereke. So what did the Titans do? They handed the ball to Derrick Henry 17 times before halftime.

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THE BIG QUESTION

What’s next in Detroit and Jacksonville?

We’ve had two sets of changes since last week’s GamePlan, bringign the NFL’s totals, at the outset of December, to four openings on the GM side and three on the coaching side. And while there are more to come, it’s fair to say that the latest teams to start the process of looking toward 2021 in earnest—the Lions and Jaguars—have their merits to sell. Let’s look at both.

In Detroit, they’ve got options. There’s enough talent that they can build for now around Matthew Stafford. And that core (Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, T.J. Hockenson, Kenny Golladay, Jeff Okudah, et al.) is young enough where it can be the foundation for a rebuild, too. Cap manager Mike Disner’s a nice resource to have too, and while Sheila Ford Hamp is new in charge, her family’s shown patience with their football people in the past.

As for my understanding on where things stand, the Lions have started to vet candidates on their preliminary GM and coach search lists—which is the benefit of making changes ahead of Black Monday—and they’re not married to a certain structure. My sense is they’d let the right coach help pick the GM, and let the right GM help pick the coach. Either way, I’d guess the Lions will turn over lots of rocks, college and pro, through their process.

In Jacksonville, I’ve heard that Doug Marrone survived GM Dave Caldwell’s firing for a few different reasons. One, the team is still playing hard for him. Two, there wasn’t a coach on staff that the Jaguars felt compelled to give a shot to as interim coach, and so the best thing for the young players who will be around long-term was not to rock the boat. Three, as the team does its initial homework on GM candidates, they can gather information on what some of the people that might be in the running would think of working with Marrone.

And it’s not like the Jags won’t have a lot to sell. We’ve gone over this a couple times this week (see: Wednesday’s mailbag), but it’s worth mentioning it again. The team will have a top-two pick in a QB-rich year; multiple picks in the first, second, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds; and has only about $115 million committed to the 2021 cap, the second-lowest number in the league, in a year where that sort of thing will matter. Plus, owner Shad Khan has shown he’ll give you time.

Take a cold look at it, and those two teams have a little less baggage than the other two with openings right now. The Falcons have an aging core and a serious cap issue going into 2021 that may necessitate a teardown. The Texans do have Deshaun Watson, but are also tight to the cap, devoid of high-end draft capital going into April and carrying office politics that have festered the last couple years.

Frankly, the slates aren’t totally clean in those places. For the most part, they are (or will be) in Jacksonville and Detroit.

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WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT?

The financial impact of Bud Dupree’s injury.

We’ve heard complaints about the franchise tag over the years. But what we, fortunately, haven’t often seen is the worst-case scenario playing out. But we did on Wednesday afternoon, with Bud Dupree going down with a torn ACL in the fourth quarter, and now the former first-round pick is left with the fallout.

How long has it been? If you take away Dak Prescott (because he’s a quarterback, and as such in a different category), it’s been seven years.

Former Bears DT Henry Melton was the player. Melton became a star in 2011, with a seven-sack season as Lovie Smith’s 3-technique, and backed that performance up with another six sacks and a Pro Bowl berth in 2012. As a result, and with a new coach and GM in place, Chicago tagged him in 2013 at $8.45 million (he’d made about $2 million over his first four NFL season) and, when long-term talks failed, Melton signed the one-year tender.

He tore his ACL that September. Bears GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman made the decision to move on, and Melton latched on with ex-Chicago DC Rod Marinelli in Dallas. There, Melton got a make-good deal, signing an incentive-laden one-year deal with a three-year team option. He was fine, registering five sacks, but showed wear-and-tear from the injury. Dallas declined the option. Smith brought him Tampa for a year, and his career wrapped up with what amounted to a two-week camp tryout in Denver in 2016.

Here’s how the three years after his rookie deal expired went financially (per spotrac.com).

2013: $8.45 million (Bears, franchise tag).

2014: $3.11 million (Cowboys).

2015: $3.94 million ($3.77 million from the Bucs; $176K from the Cowboys).

2016: Cut out of camp.

Total earnings: $15.50 million.

Now, that’s still a lot of money. But if you look at what lesser free agents took home that year, you can see the cost. Desmond Bryant is a good example—he was probably seen as the next interior defensive lineman after Melton in that free-agent class, and the Browns signed him to a five-year, $34 million deal, of which he made $22 million. Which means Bryant benefitted from not being quite good enough for the Raiders to tag him.

Anyway, that’s what Dupree is up against now. He turns 28 in February and, just based on standard timelines when it comes to ACL tears, he might not be ready for the start of the 2021 season. And who knows how long it’ll take him to be himself again after that.

It’s a tough situation, and easy to feel for Dupree, even if he’s made plenty of money ($34.34 million!) already.

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THE FINAL WORD

I’ve made fun of Thursday Night Football plenty. But you know what? I wish I had some tonight.