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Lombardi Lessons For The 2014 Steelers


By Michael K Reynolds

The NFL is a copycat league and for good reason.

You start off a season with thirty-two teams full of aspirations and overflowing with world class football talent and you end up with only one gladiator holding the Lombardi Trophy high. There is no better laboratory of gridiron success than the Super Bowl.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t learn from the best of 2013 then they can expect to wallow in mediocrity once again in 2014.

So what truths can the Black and Gold extract from the Seattle Seahawks dominating win at the Super Bowl and the NFL playoffs in general?

Here’s a few of the most essential lessons:

ONE: The Steelers Were What Their Record Showed
With the horse whipping the Seahawks applied to the Denver Broncos they not only entered the ring of NFL champions they also made a huge statement about the NFC. It’s far superior to the AFC. It would be hard to argue the NFC runner-up San Francisco 49ers couldn’t have applied a similar gelding to the AFC’s lead pony. The Steelers would be wise to acknowledge their 8-8 record is a fair representation of their talent and skill level in 2013. If they live in denial as they have the past couple of seasons you can expect them to be couch-bound and chomping on chicken wings during the playoffs once again.

TWO: Talent Rules
It’s true the Super Bowl doesn’t always crown the most talented team in the league. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens stand as a good example of this (and perhaps the 2005 Steelers as well if we’re being honest). But overall, the playoffs and the Super Bowl are typically competed by the most gifted, deepest squads in the league. Seattle affirmed this with an explanation point.

At the beginning of the season most experts agreed Seattle and San Francisco had the most talented squads and four months of coaching, practice and intensive strategy by the other thirty teams did nothing to change this. Why are the New England Patriots perennial contenders? Because they treat every day as a new opportunity to upgrade their roster.  Coach Bill Belichick didn’t exactly have a stacked deck this year but he churns the bottom ten of his roster better than anyone else in the league. He is always on the hunt for an upgrade in overall team talent and is a master at finding gems in the trash of others. But he might have some competition in Pete Carroll as it’s clear the ever-hyper coach brought his relentless USC recruiting prowess up to Washington with great results.

Does this constant tweaking of the bottom end of the roster make for an uneasy locker room and destroy the family feel of a franchise? Apparently not. Carroll was recently voted as the coach most NFL players wanted to play for.

The Steelers need to discard their hands-off approach to free agency and to re-think their strategy of pampering veterans at the cost of infusing young, speedy talent.

THREE: There Is No Offseason Anymore
The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has turned the offseason into a health club and spa for the players. The approved practice time is sparse and even when the players do show up they dance around in their shorts.

Most of the Seattle players credited their unusually violent practices during the regular season as the secret to their game day toughness and readiness.

The Steelers started this season soft and unprepared mostly because there were major personnel evaluation mistakes that took several regular season games to sort out and it required nearly half a season for the team to start gelling together.  The 2014 version needs to make tough decisions in the spring and come out firing on all cylinders from August onward with the right players and the right attitude in place.

Longtime player development is a thing of the past. Yes…you want to home grow your players, but you need to live in the now as well. Is it really true that the “light suddenly came on” after three and four years for Cameron HeywardKeenan Lewis and Jason Worilds or did they never really get a chance to demonstrate their talent with entitled veterans in front of them?

FOUR: The Defense of Defense
The Seahawks proved once again that passing thrills but defense kills.  If you study the statistics of high-flying offenses it’s undeniable winter always gives them a chill during the championship time of year. When an offense wins they can embarrass their opponents. But when a defense wins they beat up and demoralize their foes. Remember those days Steelers faithful? The only thing frightening about the Steelers defense these past years is the lingering legacy of the uniforms. The offense under the big arm of Ben Roethlisberger is strong enough to compete against the best and for a few years to come. It’s time for the front office to go all in on re-furnacing the Steel Curtain.

FIVE: Character Still Counts
Cornerback Richard Sherman’s mouth withstanding, the Seahawks were a tight team with strong character in their player leadership. Russell Wilson may develop into one of the great quarterback leaders of his generation. Although he took a beating in the big one, Peyton Manning’s impact on the Broncos and their cohesiveness can’t be undervalued in evaluating their road to the Super Bowl. This bodes as good news for the Steelers who though stretched on talent proved thick on character with their strong finish in 2013. Add some key players to the roster who won’t poison the locker room and the Steelers might be the team everybody will be emulating next off-season.

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About Michael K. Reynolds

Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic and author of the acclaimed Heirs of Ireland series. MichaelKReynolds.com
  • bonairsfavoriteson

    Mike,I totally agree with every point you just made,.

  • Callentown

    Great points. People jump on NFL fads easily, teams and fans alike.

    But there are basics of this game that will always win: a strong defense and a strong running game are able to control field position and clock management, which are staples of this game – no matter the rule changes.

    Also like your point about how the collective bargaining agreement’s reduced practice schedule has softened a lot of teams. The Steelers USED to be the team that beat you up during the game. Not at all the case now.

    But somehow the Seahawks found a way to keep that ferocity. Kudos to them.

  • Steve

    Play callers on both sides of the ball going down right off the bat did not help the Steelers in their first four games. Good article!

  • William Weaver

    Stopping the run, then getting after the QB is the key to our 3-4 defense. If we can’t do that, (and we couldn’t) we can’t win. It all starts with stopping the run. Dictating to the offense what they will not do. Fix that and we are back in the game. Especially against a team like Seattle. We have the QB to beat them. Peyton relies on timing and the right play. Big Ben can just say “get open”. Our offense could score 20-24 points against them. Our defense would get run over by “beast mode”. Fix that! The steelers are not far off IMO.

  • Addison

    This is a great read. The two times a day practices in full pads are gone. They need to get these rookies out there. Maybe the drafting isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s the complete lack of game time that players don’t starts showing what they are capable of. Seems like Keith Butler believes more in his rookies then Dick Lebeau. ( that last part could be all in my head )

  • Bill Molinaro

    This is a great article; every point is valid! The only thing I could add is this: The Steelers need to define their identity and then acquire only players who fit that identity.

  • mem359

    Disagree with point 3. Tomlin scheduled some rough practices in the preseason, to toughen up the team, and the Steelers ended up with a lot of unfortunate injuries. I’d say that hampered them more early in the season than being “soft”. Sometimes more isn’t better.

    I will agree that there are a lot of things the Steelers could be doing better, but they shouldn’t get caught up with the events of just this year. Seattle and SF have looked very good the past few years, but they’ve had longer periods of mediocrity than the Steelers are experiencing now. Seattle went 13-3 in 2005, down to 9-7 the next year. SF averaged 5 wins a season from 2005-2007. And neither team had a winning record from 2008-2010.

  • Milliken Steeler

    The injuries were because of the CBA and would have happened regardless. Im shocked that people think the best way to deal with bigger, stronger and faster players is to have them slack off in the off season. The injuries were up across the entire league and that is no coincidence.

    The Steelers better address this with the players and assign a leader to make sure they are at least spending the time to do their off season work out program.

    Otherwise you have people like Gilbert who collapse, just trying to complete a basic conditioning test.

  • WIINGY

    A+ article.

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    Your right my thoughts exactly on the rough practices and i think the rookies had to wait because of all the talent that we had early on the field i think they believe rookies will get their time to shine when they get their time to shine that next man up mentallity plus its hard to get on the field and replace a player thats been in multiple bowls or championships

  • sean mcmartin

    All great points I am adding talent wins games combined with good coaching. But their is also a matter of paying the big contract to the QB, neither seattle or niners have had to do that yet. They can afford talent at other positions. and coaching has to identify players who can be fearsome and productive. And I know the smart alec comments who defend tomlin and colbert to the end, still have to wonder if they just cant pick the right players anymore. in the past colbert or the scouts were identifying great players, now it seems like they do not bring in the fierce young talent. And I think that is a tomlin trait. he wants the cerebral players not the fierce warriors..Its my opinion and I stick by it, so hate away 8-8 is not the standard I hold for the Black and gold.

  • dkoy85

    Free agents, free agents, free agents! They have to dabble in it more now than ever. We cant rely on rookies or the old a$$ vets. Gotta get some upgrades and depth and let the rookies compete for starting spots as the season progresses. But if we want a legitimate shot next year they have to make the hard cuts and sign some key FA’s… specifically at DE and secondary and maybe somebody to battle it out in camp with Jones.

    I agree they need to continue to upgrade. If a player earns the right to play, he plays. Doesnt matter if hes a rookie or a 46 year old who comes out of retirement… let em play.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    I’d like to comment on point 3 (long term player development)…

    In today’s NFL you are not only playing against other teams you’re playing against your own salary cap as well. You literally have to plan and predict and schedule your players salaries and extensions in order to win.

    If you let them start from year one, and they dominate early, you will often not be able to afford them come extension time because the rest of the league sees multiple years of production/stats (Mike Wallace).

    If you have them wait their turn behind veterans, not only do you lose valuable years of athleticism, you will often not be able to assess their talent accurately because they don’t see the field enough to learn/progress (Keenan Lewis, Jason Worilds).

    I believe the best solution is a balanced approach to in game snaps. Instead of having James Harrison and Lamar Woodley take every single snap of every single game come hell or high water, start rotating the young back ups in their more often. This will do three things:

    1) It will expose your veterans less to injury during the regular season, so they will be healthier/fresher come playoff time.

    2) It will allow your younger back up players to get valuable minutes. Not only will they progress faster (so you can assess their upside accurately) but they will be better prepared to fill in for veterans when the injuries do strike.

    3) It will spread the team stats evenly across the roster. Instead of having two OLB’s with 14 sacks each, you have 4 OLB’s with 10-8-6-4 sacks between them. This helps keeps extension/salaries lower.

    Of course this takes some game/play call management by the coaches. If you’re down by 7 points against a division rival, leave the starters in. If you’re up by 10 points against a cupcake team, rotate the young guys in.

    If done correctly I think you win the same amount of games but your players stay healthier.

  • Matt Manzo

    I don’t think SF would’ve beat Denver. Seattle brought something special to that game.
    I think a lot of bad late round picks the last few years is why we relied on our veterans more than before. Guys like Burfict, Chancellor, Sherman, Bowman all passed for guys no longer on our team.

  • dkoy85

    I like the way you look at that and agree.

    I’ll add to it by saying not to sign them to a 3rd contract unless theyre a big Ben or Polamalu. Groom the rookies behind the 2nd contract, let the vet go and sign the rookie contracts to their 2nd contract and let the cycle continue. That allows youth to emerge and be signed. Letting Taylor go and signing Lewis would have been huge for this team just like letting Woodley go and signing Worilds. These decisions must be made and if a young player isnt there then you draft one and sign a veteran free agent. These 3rd contracts are killers.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    The steelers started the season soft and unprepared mostly do to faulty player evaluation? Is that a generally accepted take on the season?

    I think we lost the center of the offense and defense in the first game and it took half a season to adjust. The line coaching was a big fail but I also think it took until the Ben trade rumor for him to buy in all the way.

    The issue with depth is, in addition to the mentioned vet coddling, that a team with 20 mil tied up at qb will always be vulnerable to a team with a hot, cheap qb.

    The question in my mind is if trading Ben and taking a young cheap qb when we have a good pick in a deep qb draft might be the best long term solution.

  • alex

    great article, and one lesson that needs to be learned by the Steelers is to “let’ em play”…

    Heyward and Worilds flashed in there early years but were stuck behind obvious veterans…but we still never had any rotation philosophy…we constantly hear about the intricacies of the Steelers D, but if we cant get our youngsters real playing time early, then we dont fully know what we have and then we loose them in there last contract year when they break out, ie. K Lewis and now a big contract for Worilds in his free agent year…

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Excellent! I hate to admit that NE has been doing things right for a while now, but they have. They keep Brady, a few stalwarts on the lines and the rest they kind of mix and match, often with mixed success on offense and defense. Yet they are always around for the play-offs.

    I have long thought that this is the correct approach with the salary cap not moving. Add in your idea about the way the Steelers used to do things (Letting the old guard go) and I think you have a great formula. Hell, you just have to think about Franco Harris playing for the Seahawks, Montana with KC and others to realize that success is success. We will never think anything less of the Steelers for letting Harris go or Harris for leaving.

    This is also why I have been saying let some of the older guys with big contracts go for quite some time. The worst that could happen is that they have a couple of good years elsewhere, and that’s it.

    Whereas the risks you take are huge as you are praying that they can play a couple of more years of decent or good football while surely paying too much money for their services.

    Is it a little sad that most of our favorites will not finish their careers in Black and Gold using this strategy? Hell, yeah! But every last person involved would rather have a competitive team with more Lombardi’s than the alternative — mediocre 8 and 8 teams.

  • John

    i think worilds, lewis, and heyward never really got the chance to show what they had early on. worilds was hurt a bunch so that makes some sense. the others seem to be the staff playing older players without giving the youth a chance to get into the flow. regardless of the reason, mistakes like those are killing the franchise. we lost lewis. we will likely lose worilds or overpay for him and woodley. something has to change.

  • alex

    slow down, remember, positive energy…

    the loss of LEWIS is a big learning tool in many ways…KHAN will do the hard work and sign Worilds this year and Pouncey and Hayward next year as we come out of the fog of past fat contract problems…

    oh, and Woodley is done after 2014!

  • CrazyTerry

    The top of the NFC is certainly better than the top of the AFC. But I wouldn’t go by the SB score to say that there is a huge gap between the AFC and NFC. SF was almost just as good last year and they fell convincingly to a hot Baltimore team tha was so mediocre last year until the playoff stretch that a Batch led Steelers beat them(despite Sanders killing a couple of great drives with inexcusable mistakes). Denver has had its way with the steelers in the clutch in recent matchups, but the Steelers offense would not have been worse against the Seattle D.
    As far as Lebeau, I have been in the minority that feels he has been overrated in recent years. But just as Noll’s mediocre final decade did not detract from his overall legacy as a coach, same with Lebeau. His overall legacy is still great. I just felt like he was more off than on since the Cinci game in the year after SB43 where Steelers D led by Farrior’s 3rd down pass D struggles surrendered a huge lead to Carson palmer. One big injury to Troy and it seems like that D just fell apart instead of adjusting that year.
    For years, other Ds learned from what Lebeau did with the Steelers. But you just cannot stay stagnant in today’s NFL where even a previously perpetually horrible franchise like AZ has gotten better at drafting and free agency. Maybe it’s time our coaches learn from Dan Quinn’s work in Seattle. I think Heyward and kenan’s slow development is an indictment of the Steelers defensive philosophy in recent years where caponomics is an important factor.

  • Slab

    Let’s not go overboard. Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to pick out points in hindsight and act like they tell the whole story.

    1. the Steelers were what their record showed. OK, but the record showed them to be 6-2 to close out the year, too. The Seahawks lost to the Falcons in the playoffs last year and were 7-9 the year before. Let’s not let a dominant Superbowl performance make it seem they are all that just yet.

    2. Talent rules. Well obviously, but the Seahawks were built by being awful for years and then lucking into a 3rd round draft pick at QB. That QB, at that price, is what allows then to sign FAs willy-nilly to fill holes. Let’s see what happens when Wilson is getting paid starter money (see this year’s Ravens) and/or string together a few winning seasons and thus draft late every year.

    3. There is no offseason anymore. And hasn’t been for years. Again, easy to go sign FAs when the QB is getting paid like a 3rd round rookie. Let’s see in a couple of years if Seattle can spend 43 million guaranteed on the likes of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and have it not negatively affect the team.

    Totally agree with 4 and 5 and think the Steelers do too.

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