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Are the Pittsburgh Steelers really pretenders?

Keith Butler

As a Steelers fan, last week’s game was the ultimate mixed-bag. On the one hand, football was back and after struggling to get interested in any of the preseason games – even the Steelers ones – it made for a nice change of pace to watch a regular season game, one that, even this early in the season, mattered. And of course Steelers/Patriots was always going to matter, even though it was the first game either played this year, it’s likely that it’ll end up having some playoff implications somewhere down the line. And that’s where post-week-one-blues come in, with the Steelers losing to the Patriots 28-21.

In fairness, that sort of thing is expected when Rob Gronkowski runs rampant and gets to score three touchdowns. Add to that the fact that Tom Brady was obviously coming out swinging after his suspension for the – ridiculous – Deflategate quote-unquote scandal was lifted (how that ever became a scandal is beyond me). Which isn’t to say that a Steelers defeat was written in the stars or anything like that, just that the game would always be an uphill climb.

For some though, especially with the NFL being perhaps the most “what have you done for me lately?” league in all of professional sport, with the Steelers loss to the Patriots now in the book, the rest of their season is what’s written in the stars, with the question already being asked as to if the Steelers are contenders or pretenders. Now, even putting to side the fact that a statement like that is hyperbolic at the best of times, much less after literally the first regular season game of the year. Putting all that to one side, are the Steelers actually pretenders? Or is it just the frenzy of Monday – or in this case Friday – morning quarterback play that’s caused some to summon up the blood?

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Yes, Gronkowski had three touchdowns Tom Brady threw for another on top of the those three, as well as completing over 78% of his passes, but the Steelers defence was, especially at this early stage in the season, going to be finding it’s feet. For all of the changes the Steelers went through before the beginning of this season, including the retirement of eminent playmaker and man with the million dollar hair Troy Polomalu, the loss that cuts deepest is that of Dick LeBeau, who was the team’s defensive coordinator for the last decade, meaning he helped lead them to their two most recent Super Bowl wins, as well as another appearance in one against the Packers. Replacing LeBeau was never going to be easy, given he has some of the biggest and most well-worn shoes of any coach in the league. And all of this has lead to some very fair criticism against the Steelers defence, most notably the secondary and the coverage – or rather, lack of coverage – of Gronkowski. Between that and the now par for the course lack of tackling that sometimes plagues the Steelers – it seems that in Polomalu’s absence everyone on the defensive side of the ball has taken to torpedoing players rather than wrapping up – there would always be problems, but they were problems that have everyone’s been aware of since before the beginning of the season.

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So, maybe if you were feeling particularly ired by the Steelers defensive performance, you could be forgiven for engaging in some hyperbole and calling them pretenders on at least one side of the ball; well, two, but the less said for their abysmal special teams play, the better, but the same can’t be said for them across the board. There is one area, that the pessimistic may call one glimmer of hope, that the Steelers have, and it’s their offense.

Ben Roethlisberger continues to do his thing and stand against immense pressure and require multiple players to bring him down, and, in spite of throwing one interception, had a solid game, all told. Sure, the touchdown came in garbage time, but Ben still managed to target four receivers who averaged more than 10+ yards a reception. Add to that a sterling first game in black and gold from DeAngelo Williams, who averaged 6 yards a carry, and it looks like the Steelers won’t have any issues moving the ball down the field; where they should be concerned is other people moving the ball on them.

So, on balance, should the Steelers be called pretenders? It’s easy to say yes when in two out of three areas they were lacking, but some of these issues were there for anyone who paid any attention to the writing on the wall. While Josh Scobee’s performance beggars belief, these defensive issues weren’t exactly a surprise. The lack of coverage on Gronkowski is admittedly bizarre, but this is a team that’s defense has, for the last decade, been defined as “Dick LeBeau’s defence,” there were always going to be growing pains and stumbles as they look to find their feet with a new coordinator and adjust to loss of some major players. And even putting all of that to one side, it’s week one; nobody’s taking hyperbolic statements about Gronkowski throwing over 45 touchdowns this year seriously, so why is it the problems teams have are immediately prophetic of some sort of collapse on the horizon? While everybody – myself included – plays at quarterback the next day, there just hasn’t been enough time or proof to pass a concrete judgment on the Steelers just yet.

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