"We will be a team that is still very much in development into the regular season. So will all of the other 31 teams. The big thing is to win along the way and that our development be relative to others. I am not looking for a finished product as we check out of (training camp). I am not that naïve. We are going to continue to grow, hopefully into January and February."
-- Coach Mike Tomlin
The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers will begin the regular season with the perception that they are a championship contender. For that perception to become reality, they will have to find a way to follow their coach's formula, and the first two games of this preseason indicate they could be up to the task.
In defeating the New York Giants and then the Atlanta Falcons, the Steelers presented themselves as an unfinished product, as a collection of players and coaches still very much in the development stage of becoming a team, but also as a group that found ways to win both games in somewhat improbable fashion.
What the finished product is supposed to look like will contain a dynamic offense that can fall back on efficiency if the big play faucet is turned off, complemented by a defense capable of playing multiple kinds of coverage behind a pass rush that can be effective without having to resort to trickery or numerical superiority. Those are the things they lacked last season, and those are the things believed to be essential if they are to be able to defeat Tom Brady and the defending champion New England Patriots.
But the road to that accomplishment will be lined with all sorts of potential potholes, with the journey from here to there a very long way off in the distance. And while there is time to become what they'll need to be, they also face the undeniable reality that they're going to have to find ways to win along the way. The Steelers are going to have to find ways to win along the way because those wins have to end up being sufficient in numbers for them to qualify for the perks that come with being one of the top two seeds in the conference playoffs.
That's the plan, but the getting there is going to be a process, and it would be foolish to believe the process will be smooth. The preseason has been proof of that.
So many elements of the kind of team they can become seem to be attainable, either by reputation, or potential, or visible in small sample sizes to give cause for hope, but hope is something that's always plentiful at this time of the year in all 32 cities that host professional football.
As an example, let's start with an offense seemingly capable of scoring whatever would be necessary to beat whichever opponent it's facing on any given weekend. The reputations of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant as proven playmakers are not in question, and while it's perfectly reasonable to assume they will come together and do what they've done before, there is no recent visual evidence.
The pass rush produced seven sacks against the Giants and four more against the Falcons, but at no time in either one of those games did it give the impression of being the consistently reliable weapon it will need to become.
Man-to-man is a coverage scheme the Steelers plan to be able to implement in situations that require it, and the daily training camp mano-a-manos between Artie Burns and Brown, between Stephon Tuitt and Brown, between Coty Sensabaugh and Brown were designed to facilitate the development. Going against the best should sharpen the defensive backs' skills in this area, and there can be little argument that Brown is among the best, but at this stage it's just not reasonable to believe what was drilled at Saint Vincent College will transfer smoothly even to FirstEnergy Stadium on Sept. 10.
The Steelers defeated the Falcons, 17-13, with touchdowns from a couple of guys who might not even get to make that trip to Cleveland, just as they defeated the Giants, 20-12, in their preseason opener with the help of a big game from a veteran outside linebacker who should find himself among the supporting cast once the regular season begins.
Their offensive stars either haven't played together, or they haven't played at all. Their defense has been without its most dynamic playmaker, and it looked to be no more than a speed bump during the one series it lined up against the reigning NFL MVP – Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan – who was operating without All-Pro receiver Julio Jones. Just saying.
But they made do against the Giants with two touchdowns and a field goal over a span of four offensive possessions that were helped considerably by a pair of New York turnovers. And against the Colts, it was a 64-yard punt return for their first touchdown, with the second coming on a short pitch-and-catch that converted their second and last third-down situation of the whole game.
This is simply the midway point in the preseason, and while the Steelers arrived here at 2-0, they also did so as far away from being a finished product as the playoffs that ultimately will define their season are into the future.
And in that way, they're right on track.