As tonight’s kickoff approaches and Steeler Nation dusts off its best Ray Lewis murder jokes and sarcastic jabs about whether or not Joe Flacco is an “elite” quarterback, there’s an uneasiness in the air. But there’s also opportunity.
Now, I’m not going to get into the off-field issues surrounding Michael Vick’s presence on the roster. I’ll leave that to those who choose to put pen to poster board and stand in protest outside Heinz Field and the team’s South Side practice facility. Speak your mind. It’s your right to do so.
It took until about 11 a.m. Monday morning – while sitting in the waiting room of an orthodontist’s office – for the anti-Vick commentary (the on-field kind) to start making its way into my ear holes. As I scrolled through various sports sites on my phone, killing time while my son was getting molds done for his introduction to becoming a pre-teen with braces, a man in front of me was already dreading the number of turnovers Vick was going to have against the Ravens and beyond. The ladies behind the reception desk discussed Vick, then quickly made a conversational U-turn to bash Tom Brady. That’s always fun, but back to my point.
See, in waiting-room-guy’s mind, Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t throw interceptions. This guy must have had his head in the fridge for the two picks Ben threw in his first two-and-a-half games this season. I saw both of them. I’m sure most of you did too. All the Favre-like sack/fumble/shovel-pass combos No. 7 has attempted over the years? Yeah, I’ve thrown my hands up in frustration over plenty of those too.
Look, I get it. The offense has been clicking on all cylinders for a couple of seasons now. And there’s no doubt Ben has been playing at a ridiculously high level. But the last time I checked, Ben had some flaws in his game. An injury is only going to compound the potential for him to make mistakes. Let the man heal and come back when he’s ready.
In the meantime, do I expect Vick to run all over the yard tonight, leaving purple-clad defenders in his wake and lighting up the scoreboard for 30 points or more? Not by a long shot. But by Todd Haley simplifying the playbook and tailoring tonight’s offensive game plan to Vick’s skill set – thereby increasing his comfort level and opportunities to succeed – the Steelers will have a chance to win. That’s all they need. A chance.
And even if the offense looks ugly tonight (win or lose), there’s hope on the horizon. The return of Martavis Bryant next week will give Vick a sizable target to look for when he needs to keep a drive going or wants to take a shot at the end zone. Throwing a ball up and letting Bryant go get it has less to do with timing and practice reps and more to do with athleticism – which Vick and Bryant both possess plenty of.
Continuing with the wide receiver theme, Vick isn’t going to have the same rapport with Antonio Brown that Ben does. Brown’s precious (albeit meaningless) five-catch, 50-yard streak may come to an end in the next six weeks. And you know what? That’s OK. As long as the Steelers wind up scoring more points than the opposition when the clock hits 0:00.
Maybe we’ll see some wildcat tonight with Brown or Le’Veon Bell taking snaps and Vick split out or on the sidelines in favor of an extra tight end or fullback. That’s OK too. Whatever gets the offense moving and sustains drives. Nothing will take the crowd out of the game – or tire out the defense – like a bunch of three-and-outs. If I were Haley, I’d try not to lean too heavily on the screen game because you’re just inviting Baltimore to put more players near the line of scrimmage to potentially confuse Vick and alter his passing lanes.
Maybe the Steelers will enjoy some unexpected momentum from a defensive touchdown or a big special-teams play. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take anything I can get if it means gaining an edge against the Ravens.
So as game time creeps closer, remember that tonight is an opportunity for Vick to show Pittsburgh what he can do. And more importantly, it’s a chance to send John Harbaugh and his dirty birds back to Baltimore with an 0-4 record.