…the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And if there was ever a case where a six-time Super Bowl champion was flying under the radar, this is it.
But given their history of recent years, they would probably prefer it that way.
The Steelers smashed an up-and-coming Cleveland Browns team 38-7 on Monday (Australian time) to improve to 5-0, setting up a battle-of-the-unbeatens matchup against the Tennessee Titans next weekend.
Given the Steelers’ last two seasons where they went 9-6-1 in 2018, and then 8-8 last season, and hadn’t made the playoffs since following the 2017 season, longtime coach Mike Tomlin – now in his 13th season since taking over after Bill Cowher’s retirement after the 2006 season – has done very well to get Pittsburgh to where they are after the first five weeks of the 2020 season.
So, what’s happened?
At one point, the Brown and Bell distractions led one teammate to conclude that the Steelers were akin to the Kardashians for comparable levels of internal conflicts.
So Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert cleaned out the roster, focusing on draft picks and defence to complement a healthy-again Ben Roethlisberger leading their attack at quarterback.
Most significantly, those drafts from 2019 and 2020 have yielded linebackers Devin Bush and Alex Highsmith, wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and tight end Zach Gentry, and they also acquired offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski, tight end Eric Ebron and defensive back Steven Nelson through free agency.
And not to be lost in the shuffle of the Steelers’ rebuilding, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick – who returned an early Baker Mayfield pick-six in the win over the Browns – was obtained in an early-season trade with the Miami Dolphins last year.
Tomlin has gained a reputation around the NFL over the years as not just one of its best coaches, nor as one of its best team builders, but also as one of its best teachers and one who can nurture talent into a team culture.
“We covet guys who are selfless and good teammates, and so that’s a big part of the research and evaluation process for us in terms of getting to know draft-eligibles, but it’s also something that’s cultivated when they’re here,” says Tomlin.
Combine the above acquisitions with Roethlisberger – eleven touchdown passes to one interception so far in 2020 – having his confidence back as well as having a healthy arm again, along with the influence of offensive veterans JuJu Smith-Schuster at wide receiver and running back James Conner on offense, and it’s a small wonder why the Steelers are currently sitting atop a very competitive AFC North.
The blending of new talent with the old has also been a factor.
Take for example, the emergence of Claypool as a favoured target for Roethlisberger and a cult figure among Steelers fans – he caught four passes for 74 yards and had a rushing touchdown on an end-around against the Browns, and his season statistics of 13 receptions for 261 yards, good for a 20.1 yards-per-catch average, qualify him as a genuine deep threat in the Steelers’ offensive scheme.
In fact, after Claypool scored four touchdowns – three receiving, and one rushing – against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, people took notice of how special of a talent the native of Abbottsford, British Columbia (Canada) possesses.
“He’s talented,” says Roethlisberger.
“He has got some God-given abilities that not many people in this world have. He's big, fast, and strong, and he's very, very smart. So we’re able to do those things like move him around and do some things with him.
“That last touchdown [against the Eagles] is a perfect example. Changed the play, and he makes it happen. I just have to give him a little bit of a cue, and it’s awesome,” added Roethlisberger.
Steelers critics will say that with their previous four wins coming against teams with a combined record of 4-17-1, they really hadn’t beaten anyone of any quality yet. But with the ease of the win over the Browns, and ending their division rival’s four-game winning streak in the process, Tomlin’s team have made a statement that they will be reckoned with for the remainder of the season.
“That was varsity ball today,” Tomlin said after the win over the Browns.
“They stepped up and stepped up big and met a challenge,” he added.
The Steelers’ defence has also stepped up.
While the 2020 unit will not register any comparisons yet with the famed “Steel Curtain” unit of the 1970s and early ‘80s, but the performance of a defence led by T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Cam Heyward on the pass rush and Fitzpatrick leading their pass coverage has been impressive enough to allow an average of nearly 19 points per game but 285 yards of total offence per game, and a very stingy 3.3 yards per carry to opposing running backs.
“We always tell our defence that they have no control over how they have to take the field, but they have total control over how they get off the field. Statements like that prepare the defence, because sometimes you’re going to have to take the field in adverse circumstances, you’re going to have to take the field on a short field, and you have to deliver,” says Tomlin.
And against the Browns, it was more of the same.
In addition to holding Mayfield and the Browns to just seven points, they limited the opposition quarterback to 119 passing yards on 10-of-18 passing, one touchdown pass and two interceptions, including Fitzpatrick’s touchdown return, as well as limiting Browns running back Kareem Hunt to 40 yards on 13 carries, and the Browns to 240 yards of total offence.
“We needed to set the tone on defence,” said Fitzpatrick, mainly about his early pick-six, but his comments could apply to the Steelers’ total domination on defence.
That win took the Steelers to a 5-0 mark for the first time since 1978, when then-coach Chuck Noll’s Steelers were in the middle of a run which saw them win four Super Bowls within a six-year span.
But for the current team, it’s just one step at a time, despite the status of their current opening run.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to respect. We just want our respect,” said Conner after the win over the Browns.
And now, the Titans await, as the next step to maintain that.