JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – This is what it's going to look like, boys and girls. This is what Steelers football is now.
Steelers football always has been about more than a slogan on a T-shirt. It represented a style of play, it represented a mind-set. It called for an offense that was more sledgehammer than showtime, coupled with a defense that was as subtle as a punch in the mouth. Those elements served as the foundation for a team that won a lot of games and more Lombardis than any other in the NFL.
The Pittsburgh Steelers went into every game with a willingness to trade punches with the opponent until the opponent just got tired of getting hit. It was attrition football that the Steelers played, every week of the season, season after season after season.
It's different now. Opponents still will wake up the morning after a 60-minute dance with the Steelers bruised and maybe bloodied, but that's not going to be their sole path to victory anymore. There's a little more Muhammad Ali in their game now, and a little less Joe Frazier.
For most of the football-watching public, the Steelers unveiled what's going to be their primary method of winning football games last night at Everbank Field, but those who have been sitting on the hillsides surrounding Chuck Noll Field on the Saint Vincent College campus have been seeing it since the first day this training camp opened.
On those very fields, at the start of every practice of every day at training camp, Coach Mike Tomlin gets the proceedings underway with a spirited version of "seven shots." The ball is placed at the 2-yard line, and seven separate plays are run from that spot. Tackling is allowed. Getting the ball into the end zone is worth one point for the offense, and preventing that is worth one point for the defense.
The Steelers' offense has been wildly successful during "seven shots" this summer, or to be more accurate, the Steelers' first-team offense has been wildly successful during "seven shots" this summer. After being given the night off when the preseason opened on Aug. 9 in Canton, Ohio, the varsity made its 2015 debut here.
Check out the highlight photos from the Steelers vs Jaguars game.
Against the Jaguars defense, it looked like this: After the opening kickoff sailed out of the end zone for a touchback, the Steelers sent out a unit made up of five offensive linemen, plus Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton. From the 20-yard line, only six plays were required to traverse the entire 80 yards to score a touchdown, and the play selection simply highlighted the defense's conundrum.
Roethlisberger began by nibbling away with a couple of quick throws that gained a combined 15 yards. Then it was handed to Bell on each of the next two plays for 18 more. Another running play, this one for DeAngelo Williams, set up a third-and-5. Play-action, and deep down the right sideline ran Martavis Bryant to settle under a perfect rainbow from Roethlisberger, and Mike Tomlin suddenly was facing his first decision on whether to attempt a two-point conversion.
Living up to his promise, Tomlin was aggressive in his decision-making, and therefore it became 8-0 when Roethlisberger extended the play and then fired a bullet to Wheaton just over the goal line. Throw it short, run it, throw it deep. All with the same basic personnel grouping, which raises the degree of difficulty for the defense.
"We want to be the best offense in the league," said Roethlisberger. "That's a goal that Coach (Todd) Haley set out for us, and it's not easy because there's always a bull's-eye on your chest when you were good last year. We still have the tools to do it, but we have to execute. Tonight was a night that we executed, but it doesn't mean it's going to happen every night."
It's pretty much going to have to happen every night, or every afternoon at 1 p.m., or 4:25 p.m., or whenever, because the Steelers' defense right now is only a theory. What it's supposed to be and how the pieces in place can be envisioned to come together can be talked about, but there hasn't been a whole lot of empirical evidence suggesting it's going to come to fruition.
After a three-and-out on its opening possession, the Jaguars offense put together a 13-play field goal drive to cut the Steelers' lead to 8-3. On that drive, the Jaguars converted a third-and-short, then they survived a sack and a false start penalty by converting a third-and-14, and then they mitigated the damage of a holding penalty by getting a hunk of the yardage back on the next play to get their kicker into a good spot to do his thing.
Each of Jacksonville's next two possessions ended in touchdowns, the first of which came when quarterback Blake Bortles scrambled into the end zone on a fourth-and-3 from the 4-yard line, and the second came when Jaguars backup quarterback Chad Henne exposed Shamarko Thomas as a novice in the basics of cover-2 with a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end Clay Harbor.
"I can't give you anything that we did good," said James Harrison about the defense's showing. "We need to go out there and beat the man in front of us. And we need to make and secure tackles. Point blank period. I didn't see anything that we did really too well to be honest."
There were blown assignments and some less-than-crisp tackling, but the real problem was the lack of play-making. Before the game was turned over to the bottom-of-the-depth-chart guys, the Jaguars converted 5-of-8 situations in which the Steelers defense had a chance to get off the field. Third-and-14, fourth-and-3, those are the times when someone in their defensive huddle has to step up and make a play. Sack, takeaway, something, even if it's just not coughing up a big play after the opposing offense puts itself in a hole with a penalty.
When the games start to count in the standings, the Steelers won't be pulling their offense off the field after a single touchdown drive, and so there will be continued pressure applied, not only to the opposing defense but also to that team's offense as it tries to match touchdown for touchdown.
But in there somewhere has to be a defense that can grow to be at least occasionally opportunistic. Working with the secondary one afternoon in early August, Tomlin could be heard telling his players, "We're not going to build this in a day."
It needs to get built, however, if this new version of Steelers football is to be as successful as the old one.