By Tim Benz
There is one thing athletes and coaches hate more than anything else. It’s not losing. It’s not bad officiating. It’s not a cheating opponent.
It’s when the fans or media members are right about something. Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon is a prime example of proving this. If a fan or media member were to suggest it’s a nice day outside, Dixon would point to the one puffy cumulus cloud against a brilliant blue backdrop and remind you that there were no clouds yesterday.
The next guy in line could say; “Hey Jamie! Lousy weather we’re having, huh?!” Dixon would respond: “Well, it’s not raining. What’s the problem?”
Anything to throw the fans or media off the scent of an issue surrounding the team. Athletes and coaches are programmed to automatically refute theories advanced by the public.
Take the Pittsburgh Steelers for instance. Last year their notorious defense became notoriously bad at blowing leads and losing games. Fans and media members wanted to blame the absence of injured players such as Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu. They wanted to blame deteriorating play of veterans such as James Farrior and James Harrison. They wanted to sight slow development of guys such as Lawrence Timmons and Ziggy Hood. And they pointed out a lack of depth at corner and safety.
These were all valid reasons for Pittsburgh’s steep decline in quality defensive play from a unit that set records in 2008 en route to a Super Bowl, to a unit that made quarterbacks such as Bruce Gradkowski look like Joe Montana in ‘09.
But far be it from a big time coach or athlete to ever admit that there is merit to a notion suggested by lowlifes such as media members or inconsequential fans. Instead, across the board, Steeler coaches and defensive players blamed “communication breakdowns” and “mental mistakes” for their poor play in’09.
This always puzzled me. I never understood why good football men such as Farrior, and Smith, and Hall of Fame Coordinator Dick Lebeau would somehow prefer to pin the blame on those issues of the defense rather than more obvious theories that all of us “know nothings” outside of the locker room opined.
Why was it so much more acceptable to say that team was too dumb to get the plays on defense right and too stupid to tell each other what they were supposed to do? Why was that a more palatable excuse for poor play than, say, Ray Rice happens to be fast than James Farrior at the respective stages of their careers?
Or maybe just say Joe Burnett didn’t catch the ball.
Or maybe just say: “Yo, Troy Polamalu is hurt! He’s pretty good you know!”
But instead, Mike Tomlin spent most of 2009 prattling on about “the next man up is just as capable” and how the team just needed to be “more sound in its assignments” on defense.
Funny how everybody got “more sound” now that Polamalu, Smith, Timmons, Farrior, and Harrison are all healthy and playing well. Funny how the defense has gotten better when Nick Eason and William Gay can be backups instead of starters.
Funny how the communication breakdowns don’t seem to happen in the secondary when the front seven is collapsing the pocket on the other team’s quarterback.
“You know what, our defense was pretty salty for the first three games of last year too,” said Mike Tomlin on Tuesday. That’s true. Until those pesky “communication breakdowns” cost them games against Chicago and Cincinnati.
The only thing that broke down in those games were Farrior trying to catch Brian Leonard and Ty Carter trying to be Polamalu. That Steeler defense deserved it’s 1-2 record after three weeks. This Steeler defense deserves its perfect 3-0 mark.
For his part, Smith credits better rotation up front for Pittsburgh improved defensive play this year. “We are rotating a lot more. We are fresher. We have more energy to rush the passer and finish the play. Finish the game,” argues Smith
Farrior says the physical play on the field is simply better in 2010 than 2009. That’s true. But he at least does allow that the communication skills are better than they were a year ago, thus avoiding those catastrophic coverage blunders that hurt the Steelers late in games. “I feel like I’ve got ten other guys chirping right along with me every play,” says the team’s defensive captain.
Whether it’s talking better, playing better, or getting luckier in terms of health, this Steeler defense appears light years ahead of the unit that allowed so may leads to erode at inopportune times a season ago. So maybe the fans and media are best served by offering this simple explanation as to why Pittsburgh‘s Big Nasty, 60 minute, Steel Curtain appears to be back:
“JUST BECAUSE IT IS!”
Hey, Tomlin probably won’t argue with you there.
Tim Benz is a contributor to Inside Pittsburgh Sports. He hosts a radio show, 6-10 a.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).