Pittsburgh didn’t panic when things went south in 2019. That patience has paid off with a team worthy of its predecessors.
By Mike Tanier
(The New York Times) With their deeply-talented roster, sack-happy style and early-season success, the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers conjure grainy, romanticized images of the team’s 1970s glory days: quarterbacks fleeing their defense in terror and opponents driven facemask-first into the dirt, while foundry workers cheer them from smoky tap rooms and John Facenda narrates over a cinematic soundtrack.
It’s tempting — and incredibly premature — to draw parallels between the current unbeaten Steelers and their Steel Curtain predecessors: T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree walloping quarterbacks like Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene; Minkah Fitzpatrick as turnover-hungry Mel Blount; James Conner hammering out yardage like Franco Harris; Juju Smith-Schuster and the rookie sensation Chase Claypool channeling the graceful Lynn Swann and the physical John Stallworth; and Ben Roethlisberger orchestrating the havoc like the wily Terry Bradshaw.
But just as Pittsburgh is decades removed from being a sooty mill town (the tap rooms are now brew pubs, the pierogies possibly stuffed with braised short rib or spinach-and-mushrooms), the 2020 Steelers (5-0) cannot quite claim direct lineage from the teams that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. This year’s roster does, however, validate the Steelers’ traditionalist franchise-building philosophy and represents a welcome return to the team’s roots.
In a league where organizations replace regimes like they are toner cartridges, the Steelers have changed head coaches only twice in the last 51 years. Mike Tomlin has coached the Steelers since 2007. General manager Kevin Colbert has been at his post since 2000. The team’s strict budget practices — contracts are rarely extended before their final year, and big-money acquisitions are rare — have been in place for decades. The Steelers still deploy a variation of the base defense that Chuck Noll installed in 1983. Even the team’s uniforms have barely changed since 1968.
That commitment to continuity has paid off. The Steelers have not endured a losing season since 2003. They have reached the playoffs 18 times and the Super Bowl four times since 1992. Bill Cowher’s perennial contenders of the mid-1990s (led by defenders like Kevin Greene, Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd) and the Cowher/Tomlin Super Bowl teams of 2005 and 2008 (Roethlisberger, defenders Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, old-school weapons like Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward), all bore clear resemblances to the 1970s-era champions.
When the Steelers strayed from their traditional template in the mid-2010s, with running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown joining Roethlisberger as the team’s marquee performers, it nearly tore the franchise apart.
The Steelers reached the playoffs in every season from 2014 through 2017 with a high-scoring offense (they finished in the top 10 in scoring all four years), a less-than-spectacular defense (10th or lower in fewest points allowed three times) and an ever-increasing, uncharacteristic flair for melodrama. The 2018 team started the season 7-2-1 but then lost four of its last six games to miss the playoffs, collapsing beneath the soap opera story lines of Bell’s yearlong contract holdout and Brown’s behind-the-scenes histrionics.
The organization allowed Bell to sign with the Jets at the start of the 2019 off-season and traded Brown to the Oakland Raiders so he could pursue Batman villainy elsewhere. When Roethlisberger sustained a major elbow injury in the second game of the 2019 season, it appeared to signal a tidy end to an era. With their superstars injured or dispersed, surely it was time for the Steelers to replace Tomlin (who appeared to have a substitute teacher’s command of the locker room) and plunge into a rebuilding cycle with a new quarterback.
Instead, the Steelers went in the opposite direction, extending Tomlin’s contract before the 2019 season began, then trading away their 2020 first-round draft pick for Fitzpatrick instead of earmarking it to select Roethlisberger’s replacement. The trade was widely criticized, but the Fitzpatrick-Watt-Dupree defense produced 54 sacks and 20 interceptions, and the Steelers remained in the playoff chase until the final week of the season despite an injury-ravaged offense.
The Steelers’ refusal to strip-mine the roster and start over is now paying off. The 38-year-old Roethlisberger has only looked slightly creaky since his return; he is also noticeably slimmer than the chunky bouncer who waddled onto the field in the late 2010s. Roethlisberger has spread 11 touchdown passes through five games among newcomers (Claypool), holdovers from the Real Steelers of Allegheny County era (Smith-Shuster), and youngsters who made the most of the 2019 gap year (Dionte Johnson, James Washington).
The Steelers defense, meanwhile, leads the N.F.L. with 24 sacks and allows only 3.3 yards per running play. And with Bell recently released from Jets purgatory and Brown best left as the topic of a different sort of essay, the Steelers are free of both tabloid fodder and regrets.
So while the Super Bowl plans and Steel Curtain comparisons should at least wait until after the Steelers face the 5-0 Tennessee Titans and the 5-1 Baltimore Ravens over the next two weeks, there are good reasons they inspire 8-track flashbacks. The Steelers are throwbacks to an era of longer attention spans and slower news cycles, when granting the quarterback and the coach an extra year made sense and instant-gratification roster decisions did not. They have built a young nucleus without “rebuilding,” developed rising stars instead of overpaying and created a more exciting team than they fielded in the Bell-Brown era without compromising.
The 2020 Steelers are so old-fashioned that they are now retro chic. It’s a look that really suits them.