Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher would approach each NFL regular season as if it was an individual game: Quarter by quarter. He held the philosophy that a team builds its identity in the first three to four weeks of the season, dominates its home field, and accepts responsibility for any mistakes then corrects them along the way. If the first quarter of 2016 is any indication, Cowher’s plan serves Mike Tomlin’s team well.
The one thing holding back last year’s Steelers from advancing to the AFC championship was the health of superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell once again entered the season suspended for missing league mandated drug tests, but Brown began with a pay raise. Injury to future hall of fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a patchwork offensive line, for once, seemed the least of the team’s worries. Right guard Ramon Foster did go down to injury in Week 3 against Philadelphia, but he would have hardly made a difference in the 34-3 drubbing. B.J. Finney would fill in admirably Week 4 as the Steelers bounced back against Kansas City, 43-14, even though they would lose another offensive lineman to injury in veteran tackle Marcus Gilbert.
The Steelers have been vocal about their goal of scoring 30 points per game. After torching Washington on the road Week 1 and holding off Cincinnati at a drenched Heinz Field Week 2, they average out at 27 while allowing only 20. Dick LeBeau defenses had a goal of allowing only ten to 13 points per game, but those days are long gone, especially as injuries mount in the linebacking corps (Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier) and defensive backfield (Sean Davis, Robert Golden). The script has flipped. While an extreme score differential is exciting – or depressing, depending on who ends up on the winning side – a trend toward beating teams by a one-touchdown margin precedes a successful, albeit more consistent three quarters of a season. Nonetheless, the defense must get healthy quickly, focus on pressuring quarterbacks – the unit recorded only five sacks through four weeks, and continue to win the turnover battle (+1 through four games). Offensively, the best is yet to come. Bell will become a greater asset in the passing game than as a replacement for DeAngelo Williams at tailback; the Kansas City game proved both can produce in Todd Haley’s scheme. Brown may see his workload reduced as a result, but the task of finding a capable punt returner and avoid Injury to the NFL’s best receiver remains paramount.
It seems the Steelers have yet to fully establish their 2016 identity with the return of Bell still fresh and Roethlisberger escaping the first quarter of the season in shape and unscathed. A fan with any kind of memory knows that it pays to be cautious about such things. But imagine what bodes for Pittsburgh should what happened Sunday night against Kansas City continue. Before a bye Week 8, the Steelers face three consecutive AFC East opponents, The New York Jets, the Miami Dolphins, and the hated New England Patriots. They return from the break for a division matchup against Baltimore, with which they currently share first place in the AFC North. The Steelers earned a respectable 3-1 record in the first quarter of the season, but they cannot afford to hold back, get overconfident, and take mediocre teams for granted in order need to keep up the pace and ultimately claim a seventh Lombardi Trophy.