The Pittsburgh Steelers have come to an oasis in the midst of their 2015 journey, and it's a sweet oasis, too, because they've won their last two games, are getting their franchise quarterback healthy and have the week to do nothing better than party at practice.
And it was quite a scene yesterday. With the away-game, loud-crowd speakers in place as the Steelers consider their next game two Sundays from now at Seattle, Will Gay, in street clothes as his bumps and bruises heal, plugged his phone into those speakers and assumed the role of team DJ.
He was spinning and scratching -- or whatever people call what DJs do these days -- and the team half-danced and half-practiced for about an hour before calling it a day.
It was the kind of practice my dad, and probably yours, would have hated. It didn't look like John Mitchell liked it very much, either.
It may have been a simple stretching exercise, with bonding included as a bonus, but Mitch looked like my agitated old man as he tried to sneak in some quality work with young defensive linemen such as L.T. Walton and Caushaud Lyons.
I only bring Mitch up because he had the misfortune of being stationed right in front of those "loud-crowd" speakers that were spitting out rap songs that I, white guy, am probably not allowed to sing along with. (And I thought Rage Against The Machine used salty language.)
But even Mitch understood the purpose: It was time to take a day to enjoy the journey, because in the end, even in the cases of spectacular and undefeated and top-ranked teams, that's all you have.
No doubt this week's practices will be remembered and treasured by this team when all's said and done. But as far as getting legitimate work done, the stretching at least was invaluable. And there's never anything wrong with keeping a group of wealthy and healthy young men in their discipline of getting up early, going over material in a meeting, putting on the gear and working together, even if the most difficult part of the day involves jumping out of the way of Cody Wallace's remote-operated car that spun around the field from unit to unit.
"I have started looking at Seattle," Ben Roethlisberger said after Wednesday's practice. "But let us enjoy this time because it’s long overdue. We're going to enjoy this. We need this time because we've got some guys who need to get ready to go. We have a tough one next."
At least they're talking about getting back to some serious work. In the meantime, coaches and players were available to reflect on the Steelers' status as the journey takes its one-week hiatus.
OL coach Mike Munchak
"We’ve had injuries, but never like this to your 'two best guys' the left tackle and the center," said Munchak. "Cody Wallace has done a great job. His experience has been a big plus. But it’s hard."
What about Alejandro Villanueva? He made his NFL line debut at left tackle when Kelvin Beachum went down for the season on Oct. 18.
"Every Sunday is a new experience for him. He sees something that he hasn't seen," Munchak said. "You can only practice so much. He is going against some very good football players and has done a very good job."
Munchak gives much of the credit to left guard Ramon Foster.
"Ramon knows the offense so well. He has been in the league so long. Every play they are talking. He’s been a big part of his development. Al doesn’t want to let anyone down. He wants to be the best he can be. That’s how he is wired. That’s in his DNA. You want players like that. The guys are confident in him. Ben Roethlisberger is confident in him. He will continue to get better. He will continue to have his moments. He found out in the last four games that you could be having a great game and one play can change that perception real fast. That’s how you grow in this league as an offensive lineman. It’s all about consistency. And he’s a great worker. You can’t ask for anything more."
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley
"For us, third down has to get better. Early on when we came out of training camp we were operating at a high level on third down so we know what we're capable of. We just haven't had that consistency. That being said, a game like last week, I think we had six plays over 20 yards. Add in the penalties, interference yardage, and we were close to 10. When you have that many field-flipping plays -- Oakland I think we had nine without penalties -- that keeps you on the field in a different way: You stay out of third down. That's the ultimate thing to do. Move the chains on first and second downs. But we need to be better on third downs."
As for being without Bell, Haley must depend on 32-year-old DeAngelo Williams to carry the load.
Williams carried 27 times for 170 yards against Oakland two Sundays ago, but opened sluggishly the following Sunday against Cleveland. Williams had carried more than 27 times only once in his 10-year pro career, and that was back in 2009.
But Williams bounced back in the second half Sunday. After carrying for 3 yards on 7 carries in the first half, Williams rushed for 51 on 10 second-half carries. Haley doesn't believe Williams has a problem with the workload.
"With Landry Jones getting most of the reps and us really not thinking there was a real chance for Ben to be playing until late, late in the week, Ben didn’t get reps. To me, that probably hurt the run game as much as anything else, just because when you’re practicing through the entire week under center with different personnel groups and then we were really limited to three receivers in gun. We got it going a little bit late in the game, but that was a big adjustment for everybody."
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler
Steelers fans can certainly appreciate Butler's outlook at the bye when he says "I don’t think I will ever like where my defense is at. I will like where our defense is at when we win the Super Bowl. Really, that’s the only thing that matters."
In the last five games, the Steelers have performed well in two of the three meaningful aspects: They've allowed only 3.8 yards per carry and a point per every 20 yards. The latter statistic is particularly outstanding, and resulted in the Steelers' 10th-place overall ranking in red-zone defense.
The third meaningful aspect, pass defense, has been a weak spot, as most assumed going into the year. In the last five games the Stelers have allowed three 300-plus-yard passing games at an average 11.5 yards per completion. The average isn't bad but it isn't close to the 9.5 ypc. posted in their last championship season (2008).
"We are still going to try to correct some of those things, get into a little bit better shape. We want to be aggressive. We want to get the turnovers. All that stuff is good," Butler said. "But we have to do better with our coverage ability and not giving people 300 passing yards per game. We don’t want to be that. Our guys have been trying to do what we’ve asked them for the most part. The more we play together the better we are going to get."
Defensive lineman Cam Heyward
The leader of the defense carried a chip on his shoulder in the offseason and spoke for the rest of the unit in wanting to prove the skeptics wrong this season.
"It's too early to say. We've got a lot of football left," said Heyward. "For me to comment on that would be premature and terrible. I would just like to think our best football is still in front of us."
Fair enough. But has the defense played better than anyone expected?
"Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes the (critics) were warranted and right. Look at the Oakland game: The offense did carry us. But it shouldn't be like that every game. It doesn't need to be like that for the rest of the season. I'll just say that.
"We've got a chance," he added. "We're in the position where if we handle our business, we'll got to the playoffs. But we're not a team that's complacent. There are things we can improve on, things we can be more consistent on. Hopefully after this past game we're heading in the right direction."