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Labriola on '17 rookies, TV ratings don't lie

Posted Jun 16, 2017

Pittsburgh loves its hockey team, but TV ratings show Steelers football is still No. 1.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* School’s out for summer …

* That’s truly what the offseason program is for NFL players. School. The idea is to get as much learning out of the way as possible so that come training camp, players are able to execute without thinking.

* Where once upon a time, players would scatter following the end of the season, only to reappear for a single three-day minicamp a few months before the next training camp opened, today’s professionals long ago accepted the reality that conditioning their bodies is a year-round responsibility.

* But that part of the process, the intensive schooling, ended yesterday, and in six weeks the Steelers will be housed in Rooney Hall on the campus of Saint Vincent College, where the real work in terms of preparing for the 2017 regular season will get done. Saint Vincent College is where the real work gets done, because that’s where this particular group of players will work in pads for the first time. And football is a sport that’s played in pads.

* It will be incumbent on the players to stay up to speed with what they’ve been taught during the offseason program, because while there’s certainly a refresher course once they re-assemble, it will be quick and unforgiving for those who haven’t retained the material.

* The absence of pads has a tendency to create a false narrative, which renders all judgments and evaluations made from what’s been happening at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex the football equivalent of fool’s gold.

* It’s fun, sure, and it serves as a tantalizing appetizer for fans desperate for a football fix, but so much of what happened will be forgotten by the time the Steelers assemble in Latrobe. And when they do assemble in Latrobe, and when they do start working on their crafts in pads, much of the focus will settle on the rookies, on the guys who are part of the 2017 draft class.

* Last year from their draft class, they needed starters, especially on defense. Basic pieces to fast-track the rebuilding of that unit, because what they really needed there – defensive backs with ball skills and a defensive lineman with inside pass-rushing skills – are way too expensive to buy on the free agent market.

* One year ago, the Steelers needed someone to step up and be a starting cornerback, they needed a safety who could handle the tackling aspect of the job description while not being a liability in coverage against the elite receiving tight ends in the league, and they needed a starting nose tackle who could be effective against the run while also having the ability to contribute to the pass rush.

* By all accounts, they were successful in filling those needs. Artie Burns started 12 of 19 games at cornerback, including playoffs, and he led the team with three interceptions and was second in passes defensed with 13. Sean Davis was a Carnell Lake-style safety, and Javon Hargrave gave indications that he will be the Steelers’ best pass-rushing nose tackle in a generation.

* What the Steelers need from this year’s draft class is different, but it will prove to be no less significant in their quest to improve upon the 2016 season that yielded a division championship and a loss on the road in the AFC Championship Game. What the Steelers need from the Class of 2017 is for some of its members to step into roles and provide the team with contributions in the situations that determine the outcome of games.

* T.J. Watt doesn’t have to be a starter at right outside linebacker because James Harrison is back for another season; JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t have to step into the lineup as a starting receiver, because Martavis Bryant has been reinstated following a one-year suspension; and Cam Sutton can work his way onto the field as a slot/extra cornerback as a result of Burns’ presence.

* But they must get contributions from these players, because their pass rush must be better, their offense must be more efficient in the red zone, and they have to have coverage answers when opposing offenses go to multiple-receiver personnel groupings. More sacks, more touchdowns, and more plays on the ball by defensive backs are what the Steelers must get if they are to win enough regular season games to earn homefield advantage in the playoffs, and then to have the ability to capitalize on that homefield advantage in the playoffs.

* As the Steelers were completing their offseason program with a three-day minicamp, much of Pittsburgh was reveling in the Stanley Cup championship won by the Penguins. The six-game series win over the Nashville Predators was the second half of back-to-back championships for the Penguins, and it was that franchise’s third championship since 2000, its fifth since joining the NHL in 1967 as part of the league’s first expansion from its original six teams.

* Kudos to the Penguins. But as typically happens in this hot take/social media driven era in which we now live, there was a rush – led by a report on ESPN.com – to proclaim Pittsburgh a hockey town.

* In a story headlined, “It's time to face the truth, the Penguins own Pittsburgh,” David Fleming took some cheap shots at the Steelers and then came to the conclusion, “Face it, Blitzburgh is now Iceburgh.”

* The television ratings tell a different story.

* For the sake of a fair comparison, this will be confined to the television ratings in the Pittsburgh market, because to be more expansive would simply reveal the nation’s preference for football over hockey. In the Penguins win over the San Jose Sharks that clinched the 2016 Stanley Cup, the telecast drew a 35.1 share and a 52 rating. That means that 35.1 percent of the all the televisions in the Pittsburgh market were tuned to the hockey game, with 52 percent of the television that were on at the time being tuned into the hockey game. For last Sunday’s Cup-clinching win over the Predators, the Penguins had a 40 rating and a 59 share.

* Great numbers. Great numbers, indeed, but hardly supportive of Fleming’s premise.

* During the 2016 regular season, the Steelers averaged a 37.8 rating and a 62.5 share for all 16 games. Slightly better numbers for the Steelers, and remember, it reflects a regular season vs. championship clinching situation. In the 2015 AFC Wild Card Round, Steelers at Bengals drew a 52 rating and a 74 share. In the 2016 AFC Championship Game against New England, the Steelers drew a 55.8 rating and a 75 share.

* In the 18-to-34 demographic, which is highly coveted by advertisers, the Penguins Cup-clinching victory over the Predators drew a 25.6 rating, while the Steelers loss to the Patriots drew a 38.4.

* The Pittsburgh Penguins are champions on the ice, a viable franchise off the ice, and contributing members of the community. Crediting them for all of that is based in fact. What Fleming wrote is not.