After eleven weeks of football, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a top three team, and the Green Bay Packers are in free fall.
Such is the current wisdom.
Las Vegas predicts this Sunday night fight will only be a fair one if Pittsburgh spots the visitors two touchdowns before the start.
Cue the “We’re nobody’s underdog” tape.
That’s what Coach McCarthy said right after his team’s sixth loss on December 19, 2010. The full quote is, “I don’t care what you guys think. We came here to win. We’re nobody’s underdog.”
Back then, Aaron Rodgers had a concussion. A 25-year-old Matt Flynn was forced to start and finish the game. And the way he finished it was humiliating. Or so it seemed at the time.
Seven seasons later it’s barely Thanksgiving, and our team is already teetering on the brink of another sixth loss. All the while these next three games, minimum, must be played without Aaron Rodgers.
Is there any chance this 2017 version of the quarterbackless Pack can win five of the next six, as the probabilities indicate will be necessary to make the playoffs?
If such an unlikely march is to begin, it will happen versus these names and jersey numbers:
SCOUTING THE STEELERS
On paper, at every position but tight end and left guard, this offense is elite. Their stutter-stepping backfield ace, #26 Le’Veon Bell, has averaged almost five yards per carry three years running, to go with almost ten catches every week. Yet management was understandably wary of his genre-busting contract demands, so he is playing on a one year deal—with what can only be described as reluctance. So reluctant that his rushing average is under four yards for the first time since he was a rookie.
Still, he was the juice that fueled every scoring drive against the same Baltimore defense that didn’t allow a point at Lambeau Field.
And he continues to have the second most receptions on the team, behind only #84 Antonio Brown, the highest paid wide receiver in the league who earned all that money last week against the Titans:
Rookie second-rounder #19 JuJu Smith-Schuster is rapidly ascending the depth chart ahead of the oft-suspended #10 Martavis Bryant, and together they form the most talented wide receiver trio in the league. They’re not burners but all three of them are strong, athletic, and run great routes.
This bevy of eligible receiving options (minus the pedestrian tight end #81 Jesse James) should mean that the 35-year-old #7 Ben Roethlisberger is poised for a career resurgence, and yet he has already thrown ten interceptions through ten games, half of them on the same day. With Ben, it’s all flips, shovels, and running heaves these days. When he does go deep it’s more buckshot than smart bomb.
This Sunday there will be a key piece of his protection missing. Without the previously injured and now suspended #77 Marcus Gilbert at right tackle, the entire offense could stall. It already happened in the five games he has missed with a sore hamstring this year.
One big ugly doesn’t usually make so much difference—especially a seven-year vet who’s never sniffed a Pro Bowl—but it makes sense when you think about the way Roethlisberger plays his position. He’s always been more of a hustling gamer than a precision, system passer—and now that he’s an old dog the tricks are getting staler. Given his tendency to react and shift around his blockers, it’s actually the frontside tackle who matters more than the blind side. He needs to be given immediate options to either step up or amble wide, and then he can create a lane to shovel it to Bell—or catapult the rock further downfield toward Brown if the linebackers cheat.
It helps that the right guard #66 David Decastro and the center #53 Maurkice Pouncey are both first-round picks on deserved second and third contracts, meaning when Gilbert’s on the field Roethlisberger has a solid wall of three to his front and right. The guys on the left side are both undrafted, and the guard, #73 Ramon Foster, is a very weak link, as Hassan Ridgeway demonstrated with ease last month.
On defense, the Steelers run a 3-4 just as the Packers and Ravens do, but unlike Green Bay’s system and the one in Baltimore that stifled the Packers, the Pittsburgh defensive lineman are tall and sleek, not short, stubby anchors like Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels, or the Jabba the Huts in Baltimore. They penetrate more than they two-gap, and the ends are the best two pressure guys on the team. #97 Cameron Heyward has seven sacks and 15 pressures, while #91 Stephon Tuitt has nine pressures.
Such end-driven pocket pushing is unusual in a 3-4 scheme. As well as this speaks to the length and sleekness of both 300-pounders on the line, it is also a criticism of the outside linebackers, who don’t get home enough. #48 Bud Dupree is a borderline first-round bust from the 2015 draft on the left side, and this year’s first-rounder, #90 T.J. Watt, has shown a few flashes in space but cannot yet consistently beat left tackles up the field. After he stuffed the stat sheet in his pro debut, many Badger-crazed Packer fans were calling for a new GM because Ted passed on the local boy, but T.J.’s two months of mediocrity since have put most of those pitchforks back in the shed.
One Pittsburgh player Ted wishes he could have drafted is the lightning fast middle backer, #50 Ryan Shazier, who went 15th overall three years ago, leaving the Pack to settle for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix six picks later. Shazier leads the team in tackles by a mile, and he often finds his way into passing lanes down the deep seam.
The secondary behind him is not elite, and half the starters are banged up. Right corner #25 Artie Burns was last year’s first-rounder, but his elite speed is meaningless when he’s running the wrong way. Free agent left corner D.J. Hayden has a broken leg, which has pushed journeyman #27 Coty Sensabaugh into service on the left and tiny rookie #31 Mike Hilton into the slot. Given that, you’d think the free safety would cheat to their side, but #23 Mike Mitchell disagreed on this Keystone Cops play:
He doesn’t just line up wrong, he’s also gimpy this week, which caused one of Bob McGinn’s scouts to spit out this gem: “Michell can’t afford an ankle injury because he can’t run, anyway.”
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
After last week’s amateur display of quarterbacking, it’s hard to imagine a Brett Hundley-led squad matching up well against any professional outfit. But I will repeat what I said after the New Orleans game when Marshon Lattimore made Hundley look JV: Really good cornerbacks can destroy Hundley’s confidence early. Lattimore did it by jumping a slant, and Jimmy Smith did it in a clever switch-off in the end zone. For a split second it looked like broken coverage, but it was a trap.
Here’s the good news: neither Marshon Lattimore nor Jimmy Smith plays for the Steelers. Their best healthy corner is ranked #58 by Pro Football Focus. It’s true that overall the Pittsburgh passing defense is highly ranked, but I think that’s more due to their interior pass rush, their fast linebacker, and a high-scoring offense that puts other teams in desperate situations early.
In other words, this is best kind of good defense for Brett Hundley to be facing. If the line can pass protect and if—this one is a big “if”—the Steelers don’t score a lot of points early, then Hundley should be able to complete some passes, move the chains, and justify the irrational confidence he continues to swagger around with.
Given how tall and skinny their defensive front is, and how small the interior backers are, this should really be a night full of Aaron Ripkowski lead blocking for Jamal Williams and Devante Mays. Last week McCarthy got spooked by Mays’ early fumble, and tried to take advantage through the air of all the single high formations the Ravens were showing. In retrospect, it was a terrible decision not to pound the rock with both backs.
Without Kenny Clark, can our defense tackle Le’Veon Bell? Without Kevin King, can we cover all three of their elite wide receivers? Probably not. If this defense is going to win many plays, it’s going to be by sacking the quarterback and/or hurrying him into interceptions. Without a consistent pass rush, Ben and Le’Veon will pick us apart. Vince Biegel needs to get motivated to show up his more highly drafted college teammate across the field, Nick Perry needs to bullrush the backup right tackle, and Clay Matthews needs to line up inside and run some stunts with Mike Daniels against the left guard and tackle. The rush needs to come from these regular upfront guys, because our corners aren’t good blitzers and Ben is too big to let any skinny guy bring him down.
On the day, eleven years ago, when Ted Thompson hired Coach McCarthy, he introduced the new guy to the media by saying, “I like that Pittsburgh macho stuff.” Asked to elaborate about the macho-ness of their interview, he responded that their getting-to-know-each-other-time “wasn’t like chick-movie stuff. It’s about what you believe in, what’s most important to you. When you ask those questions, you can go way down deep in a person’s soul.”
I thought going deep into a person’s soul was “chick-movie stuff,” but I’m not a professional NFL scout. Ted is. He knows from macho, and he particularly likes the Pittsburgh variety.
Not the downtown business where the two rivers meet by the tall buildings, but up in the hills some, along a winding neighborhood of 8,000 inside the 15th ward, is a place known as Greenfield. “McCarthy never said so”” wrote Rob Reischel in his Nobody’s Underdog biography of Coach, “but he probably wished Thompson had called it ‘Greenfield Macho.'”
“We don’t say we’re from Pittsburgh,” said Bernie O’Connor, one of Mike McCarthy’s 70-plus cousins. “We’re from Greenfield.”
McCarthy’s own comments about his upbringing are as maddeningly simple yet unclear as Thompson’s famous “macho” descriptor itself: “I grew up the right way,” he said before the Super Bowl seven years ago.
The next year, he elaborated a bit more on the concept for Reischel’s book: “The bar was packed at eight in the morning, it was packed at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it was packed at midnight. That’s just the way you grew up. It’s a blue-collar environment. I just think people were brought up the right way.”
The bar he’s referring to was owned by his parents 50 years ago, when it was called, creatively, Joe McCarthy’s Pub and Grill. Then it became Chaser’s In The Run and now it’s known as Zano’s Pub House. According to the bar’s Facebook page, this Sunday there might be home cooking from Carl and specials on Tornado drinks.
I may not know exactly what “macho” is, or the perfect “right way” to be brought up, but I expect that Coach McCarthy does not include the drinking of Tornado cocktails in either definition.
Down the hill from Zano’s, a football game will be played, and if the Packers can win, it will be done in the trenches. If there’s any fancy dancing in the open field, that will be not be a good sign. Not with this team. The only way forward, for now, is to be macho, play the right way, and maybe win ugly.
(Or be Pittsburgh stubborn and throw the ball into every damn corner, blitz from crazy angles, and go for it on stinking fourth down, all while muttering “nobody’s underdog” over and over again under your breath.)