Tim Benz: Roller-coaster Steelers embody unpredictable NFL season
What is up is down. What is down is up. Dogs and cats living together. Swarms of locust. Raining frogs.
No one is unbeaten. The Jets and Jaguars are .500.
That's the state of the NFL in 2017. It is unclear who is good and who stinks from week to week. As soon as a team appears to get on a hot streak, some struggling team knocks them down a peg.
Like the Jaguars did in Pittsburgh. Or the Bills did in Atlanta. Or the Giants did in Denver. Or the Steelers did in Kansas City.
Much like in politics these days, chaos is the new normal in pro football.
No team in 2017 has made chaos more normal than the Steelers on the field or in the locker room.
Chaotic storylines and inconsistent play have become so normal surrounding this team, a quiet week and a predictable result on a given Sunday would be a departure and not the norm.
Upset losses and unexpected road wins have mixed with botched national anthem statements, training camp absences, alleged trade requests, projectile Gatorade coolers and bouts with the quarterback's quickly ticking biological clock.
It's made watching the Steelers less predictable and more erratic than tracking President Trump's twitter feed.
“You can't ride the roller coaster,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said after his team's 30-9 loss to Jacksonville. “As a team, we have to stay consistent. There can't be highs. There can't be lows.”
Well, so far 2017 feels like Phantom's Revenge at Kennywood.
“I acknowledge that there are going to be ups and downs in the journey. I think that's a given.” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.
After the anthem mushroom cloud in Chicago, Tomlin said he welcomes distractions because they prepare his team for the maelstrom of media attention that goes along with being in the playoffs.
But did he mean he'd welcome all this?! And if so, how does he think his team has handled it?
“I'm not looking to assess globally at this juncture,” Tomlin said. “Maybe I will at a bye week. Right now, I'm just trying to get this group ready to win versus the Bengals.”
So, you're “on to Cincinnati?” I think I've heard that one before.
Well, here's a “global assessment” since Tomlin prefers to avoid advancing one of his own.
Tomlin's team sits at 4-2 with wins over conference leader Kansas City and a chance to move to 3-0 in the division Sunday.
That's not so far-off from where they should be by this point if you were projecting the season in August, right?
In fact, maybe … better?
I'll take having tie breakers in my back pocket against Kansas City and the Ravens at the expense of losses to Jacksonville and the Bears.
Some optimists might have screamed “They'll be 6-0!” But a loss at KC seemed possible. And Pittsburgh often struggles in Baltimore. So losing two of the first six was always a prospect.
Except who among us assumed defeats would come at the hands of Chicago and Jacksonville?
Another head scratcher is the highly praised Steelers offense isn't keeping the club afloat on these turbulent NFL seas. It's actually the highly questioned defense.
And it's specifically the pass defense which has been so often maligned. Here we are in mid-October and the Steelers pass defense is tops in the NFL while it's normally sturdy run defense is 23rd.
“I thought we finished strong in that area a year ago,” Tomlin said. “I thought we had a lot of the core components back. I thought they had an opportunity to be better than what they were. So I'm not surprised they are doing well.”
Understood. But 16th in the league last year to first this season is quite a leap.
Again, everything in this league seems inverted. A lot of things have to even out. And in the end, someone needs to separate and head into the playoffs in first place, even if it's just by one tiebreaker.
Maybe that can still be the Steelers. Maybe they are in better shape than we think.
Or they might just lose to the Bengals. Big Ben will retire on the spot. Brown will live stream a bunch of players saying bad things about Francis Scott Key, and — I don't know — Jordan Berry will demand his immediate release.
I'm ready for just about anything.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.