I wake up just after 6 a.m. on Fridays to meet my workout buddies at the gym at 7. But I awoke well before my alarm rang around 5:30 this past Friday and I couldn't get back to sleep, because the stress of what I had seen in Thursday night's game wouldn't leave my head.
So on Friday I finally decided on a bold move. Yep, I decided that I would take a stand and no longer watch any NFL games except those involving the Steelers.
It's tough reaching this point. This game has been a part of me ever since I can remember, and even before that. I was a very sick kid growing up because of severe food allergies. I was allergic to all but three foods for the first 3-4 years of my life. I couldn't even laugh without getting asthma. And I spent weeks at a time hooked up to IVs to control my asthma when it got severe.
So I was a clingy little kid, crying every time my mom would put me down -- except, as she later explained, when there was football on. She said she could leave me on the couch and I'd be there for at least a couple hours just quietly watching. And I hadn't even reached the age of two.
By my fourth birthday, I wore my favorite shirt proudly to display my favorite team (Steelers, of course). I would go to bed around that age thinking about my favorite helmets and jerseys and how cool it would be to own them.
Today, even though I'm approaching 40, I still train much like a pro football player. I train athletes looking to advance in the sport. Football players are my favorite athletes to train because it's my favored sport. The guys and I will throw and run routes at part of our speed/conditions work on Sunday mornings.
So, I feel like this game is a part of me, and it's tough to let it go. But it's gotten out of hand. It's nowhere near the same game. You can't cover anybody. Can't tackle anybody. The marrow of the game has been sucked out to appease fantasy football players and football moms.
I understand the league is in a tough situation. They don't want youth football to deteriorate so they overlegislate head safety. For that reason, the game is different from boxing or MMA. But at some point the league needs to realize there are protocols in place now. Just like boxing and MMA, guys know what you sign up for. If you take the physical out of what's designed to be a physical game, well then you don't have the game anymore. The field and uniforms look the same, but the product is fraudulent. And those penalties were a debacle Thursday night.
While I'm on the topic of soft football, where did my Steelers go? I used to wear Being A Steelers Fan like a badge of honor. "We're going to play tough, physical football!" Well, that's gone, too. Watching the Steelers get pushed around on defense again was demoralizing.
I had a friend who asked me if the Ray Rice distraction was good for their chances on Thursday. I said that Ray Rice won't change the fact that Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon can't hold the point or draw double teams. God, I missed Casey Hampton when watching Thomas get manhandled on third or fourth-and-short.
I'm seriously beginning to question the coaching staff's ability to evaluate talent. How is it that they believed Thomas was worth a roster spot, let alone a stating spot along the line? I'm beginning to think the Steelers' Defensive MVP the second half of last season was Al Woods. I bet they wished they gave him that extra million over two years now.
And how is it that in two years they came up with the determination that Cortez Allen was better than Keenan Lewis? Allen looks slow and vulnerable in coverage, but he makes up for it with poor tackling.
Marcus Gilbert was awful, too. Seeing him getting planted on his back while giving up a sack is part of the demoralizing lack of physicality along both Steelers lines. The two most recent contract extensions seem ridiculous. They look like panic fire: "We'll sign them and hope they develop into what we want them to be." They told Ben they wanted to keep the pieces together, and I guess they made sure they stuck to their commitment.
Against Cleveland, I thought the offense looked dynamic. Against Baltimore, watching their line get pushed around in pass protection without being able to open any major holes in the run game made me to realize this is just a smoke-and-mirrors offense. The great Le'Veon Bell seemed to create most of his yardage on his own in the run game. Most runs up the middle had no lanes. Choose a longer developing pass play, and Ben was in trouble. They can have all the well-designed underneath routes they want. It will allow them to score points during the season. But at some point in this league, you have to be able to line up and run it to convert a third-and-2. They don't have the line to do it.
What have David DeCastro and Cameron Heyward done the last two weeks? Two guys I thought would take significant jumps have been average at best. I'm not ready to pile on Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds. When you have a front that consistently gives the offense second or third-and-short, combined with a coordinator that hands out free curls, hitches, and outs, there isn't a whole lot of opportunity to get to the quarterback.
Who on the first Ravens drive felt they weren't going to score a touchdown? After starting the game in typical soft coverage on the initial completion to Steve Smith in front of Allen, and then handing the Ravens a third-and-4 conversion to Pitta, I texted a friend at that moment with this: "They won't get any turnovers this game either." Phil Simms, on the Pitta conversion, talked about how soft the coverage was. At halftime they broke down the soft coverage that led to the Ravens' 10 first-half points. Simms during the game also mentioned how the Steelers fire X blitz has been less effective because so many teams run those blitzes now. It all led me to think how this team likely needs a new voice and new direction on defense. And that pains me to say because of the love and admiration I have for Dick LeBeau.
It seems like the directions Mike Tomlin have taken this team over the last few years has been the wrong ones. For years, all I've ever heard is how the nose tackle is the key to the 3-4. The nose tackle has to take on double teams, or the defense doesn't work. How is it that he thought this defense would be OK with hybrids who can't hold the point even when single-blocked? He thought he could outsmart the current trends and get fast in the middle with run-and-chase guys? Yet if you're weak at the nose and slow at the corners, it doesn't matter who can get anywhere quickly in the middle of the defense.
I'm not saying the Steelers should run for three yards and a cloud of dust, but you can still be a physical offense and be dynamic. The reality is they haven't been able to acquire the talent necessary on both sides of the line. Certainly the head coach has to be accountable for the talent on the roster and the direction of the team.
The Steelers' identity was that they were physical on both sides of the ball. "We're going to beat you up on both sides of the ball." Now they're the ones taking the whooping. As a Steelers follower, I can handle losses. But watching them get their ass kicked is something that is too demoralizing to watch, and just flat out unacceptable.