Ready or not, here it comes:
- Something crossed my mind in listening to the sound bites coming out of the Steelers' locker room after their win over the Dolphins. Young players talking about William Gay, first about his strip/sack that preserved a 20-6 halftime lead in response to questions about that, but then often unprompted, they talked about him as a leader, a professional role model, a teammate. What crossed my mind: Is James Harrison becoming for this young, developing defense what Jerome Bettis was for the team in 2005?
- A beloved figure. Someone they look up to. An example. A teammate. A cause? Maybe we don't find out for sure until they all show up for a road trip wearing No. 16 Kent State jerseys.
- When the Steelers absolutely had to get the football over the goal line to beat the Ravens on Christmas Day and clinch the AFC North Division, Antonio Brown delivered with a spectacular effort/performance that was a testament to his individual brilliance. When Le'Veon Bell needed blocks on the edge to turn little gains into big gains to beat the Dolphins and advance to the Divisional Round of these playoffs, Antonio Brown delivered with a workmanlike effort that was a testament to his commitment to winning.
- "These guys are chasing dreams when you get into January football," was how Coach Mike Tomlin explained it. "This is the stuff they were thinking about when they were 12 years old and laying in their bed awake at night and staring at the ceiling. They're searching for a little football immortality. They're trying to search for greatness, and greatness is hoisting that Lombardi and having that confetti rain down on you."
- One of the guys searching for greatness is Ryan Shazier, and one of the places he apparently believes greatness could be hiding is in the Bill Nunn Draft Room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Actually, it's a notion shared by Mike Mitchell, and recently, by Sean Davis and Tyler Matakevich. Last Monday – the day after the win over the Dolphins – Shazier, Mitchell, Davis, and Matakevich convened early on Monday to watch video of the previous day's game, which always is the first step in preparing for the upcoming opponent.
- Or, as Tomlin put it, "We respect the challenge that is January football. But we are also really excited. We don't take it for granted. We are excited about playing, obviously, but it's a great time of year just from a preparation standpoint. It has been fun to watch our guys show the exuberance associated with January football. I think it's evident to them that not everybody gets to do this. I would imagine there are 24 teams that will be wishing they had an opportunity to practice. I think you feel that energy when we work. Hopefully, it aids us in preparation."
- Hopefully, what Shazier has been doing throughout this season aids in people giving up the narrative that Kevin Colbert and Tomlin committed malpractice by drafting Shazier in the first round of the 2014 draft instead of C.J. Mosley. Then when Mosley was then snapped up by the Ravens the whole thing became an unmitigated disaster because everybody KNOWS Ozzie Newsome never has made a bad draft choice in his life.
- Mosley is a fine player, and Newsome definitely didn't make a bad draft choice in that situation. But neither did the Steelers, and any continued suggestions they would have been better off with Mosley ignore statistics and the visual of what Shazier is bringing to this developing defense in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers prepare for the Divisional matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs.
- The statistics for Shazier are these: four interceptions this season, including one in the Wild Card Game, plus three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and 3.5 sacks. Shazier is an inside linebacker who has many of the same ball skills as the tight ends he is asked to cover, and he complements it with difference-making speed that helps him arrive on time. He has shown steady improvement and is playing his best football right now.
- And those early-morning sessions in the Bill Nunn Draft Room are an indication he's willing to do the necessary work to become great. Drafting Ryan Shazier was the right move, regardless of what C.J. Mosley is or will become.
- Another in the same category while we're at it: Le'Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy. Truly, there cannot be anyone left who disagrees with that call. Right? Certainly not after these last two months where Bell has assumed a Herculean workload – 190 carries and 32 receptions in the games starting with Nov. 20 in Cleveland and continuing to the present, with Jan. 1 vs. Cleveland a day off – and produced 1,002 yards rushing and nine total touchdowns.
- Rick Gosselin, the esteemed columnist for the Dallas Morning News, recently tweeted that in the best seven-game streak of his 15-season Hall of Fame career, Emmitt Smith's best rushing total was 860 yards, 142 yards fewer than Bell over these past seven games.
- Think about Bell's workload/production again – an average of 27 carries and 4.5 catches over a seven-game span that bettered anything the NFL's all-time leading rusher was able to manage over a similar stretch at any point during a 15-season career – and then remember one of the early criticisms of Bell was his durability. And I don't know whether Emmitt Smith or any other Hall of Fame running back ever carried on every play of a 10-play, 83-yard touchdown drive, but I know I had never seen it happen until Bell did it last Sunday against the Dolphins.
- "It shows that you don't have to over-complicate it. The third drive (in the game against Miami) was probably my favorite drive ever in my 20 years of coaching," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "The same guy carried it all 10 times, we never had a third down, we talked about it the night before the game. I talked about it again before that series, because I told him it would be early (in the game). We got everybody together and said we'll keep running it as long as you make it work. They made it work. It was a thing of beauty … The least of my worries was Le'Veon, because as I've said a number of times, if you're waiting for him to tap out he's just not going to do it. He gets stronger the more carries he gets. When you're running as efficiently and effectively as we were there, there's nothing better."
- It's an exciting time, still to be involved in the playoffs with a berth in the Super Bowl now a couple of wins away, and what makes it even more of a thrill ride is the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of the entire process. Today we can kick around the prospects of James Harrison becoming another Jerome Bettis, and what Ryan Shazier and Le'Veon Bell are contributing to a team that is evolving defensively and offensively in ways very different from what we've come to expect from Steelers football.
- Lose to the Chiefs on Sunday, though, and it's all over. Done. Then, it's: See you at Saint Vincent College in July, when they'll have to start all over again. From the beginning.