By Jason Keidel
Maybe defense wins championships. But in the increasingly volcanic world of NFL offenses, with the new rules that funnel the football into the end zone, it becomes harder for the immovable object to keep up with the unstoppable force.
Sunday’s Pittsburgh Steelers-Miami Dolphins matchup at Heinz Field was a fine, prime example. Pittsburgh’s pyrotechnic offense overwhelmed Miami’s defense en route to a 30-12 drubbing in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
And it turns out the Steelers’ big three — Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell — prospered in the playoff heat, living up to the hype. The talented triumvirate have been teammates for a few years, but Sunday was the first time all three started in the same playoff game.
And it showed. Pittsburgh scored four touchdowns, all of which included Roethlisberger, Brown or Bell.
The onslaught began with Brown, who carried his sizzling regular-season right into the postseason. While Odell Beckham was thwarted by the Packers and then vaporized by the media, Brown fueled his case as best wideout on the planet. Brown turned a first-quarter screen pass into a highlight reel, darting down the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown, his first of two on the day. His second was even longer (62 yards) and equally emblematic of his breakout speed and open-field prowess.
But for all of Brown’s athletic splendor and colorful TD dances, the Steelers offense runs through Bell, who is making his own case as the best running back in the NFL, if not the best non-QB in the game. Bell enters these playoffs as the only back in NFL history to average at least 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving over an entire season. Bell also led all rushers by averaging 157 yards from scrimmage.
Beyond the numbers, Bell is the perfect hybrid back for the nouveaux NFL offense, where running is now secondary, but the threat of it still freezes linebackers and pre-snap twitches tip the quarterback to coverages. David Johnson, the sublime running back for the Arizona Cardinals, is in Bell’s stratum, but isn’t quite the twin-threat of No. 26. As an added incentive, Bell had arguably his least productive game of the season in the Steelers’ Week 6 matchup with the Dolphins. He registered just 53 yards on the ground in Miami’s 30-16 pummeling of Pittsburgh.
All teams want to win, of course, but the Steelers needed this one. For all of Pittsburgh’s pedigree, they entered the game losing four of their prior five playoff games. And whispers about the head coach had infiltrated the Steelers’ facilities. An increasing chorus surrounded Mike Tomlin lately. Whether it’s his odd addiction to two-point conversions or overall playoff woes, the Steelers’ head man has been questioned more often than at any time during his 10-year tenure under the headset.
Maybe Tomlin isn’t squirming on the hot seat, but his overall acumen as a head coach was questioned this year, because of all the recent playoff failures, and a growing sense that Tomlin inherited a gridiron Porsche but is treating it like a Prius. You won’t find an NFL team with more front-office talent or harmony than the one along the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. That explains the surreal continuity at head coach, a position held by just three men since man landed on the moon (1969).
But to hear Terry Bradshaw tell it, Tomlin is a bit more adept with pompoms than playbooks. The iconic, former Steeler who set the gold standard for the black & gold with four Super Bowl titles, branded Tomlin more of a cheerleader than tactician. Considering the historic harmony among the Steelers’ brass, Bradshaw’s comments were nothing short of rebellious.
Two men get more of the glory and the gory than anyone else on a football field — the quarterback and coach. But as a two-time Super Bowl champion whose ticket to Canton is stamped and laminated, Big Ben isn’t going anywhere. Indeed, it’s far easier to replace a good coach than it is a great quarterback.
Of course, any NFL club west of Foxboro would take Tomlin’s regular-season record of 103-57, winning over 64 percent of his games. (Bill Belichick has won just under 74 percent of his games in New England.)
Winning will cure any ailment, and silence any cynic. And if the Steelers somehow win three more games, Big Ben will have his third ring, which should please the QB with four rings, not to mention the franchise with six in the town called Sixburgh.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.