The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2019 campaign reads like a logline for an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Liam Neeson action revenge thriller: left for dead, losing an old friend to disaster, betrayed by another, and forced to turn to someone on the opposing side while making a great sacrifice.
Now, Mike Tomlin is...Vindicated?
Maybe not quite yet. After all, we're still in the second act of this "film", the ever-present drama of the NFL season, whose New England-based "villain" never goes away and even wins half the time. But what Tomlin and the Steelers have been able to do in the face against all odds is one of the most interesting subplots of this NFL season.
It began as a season on the brink already. The Antonio Brown timebomb had finally detonated, sending metaphorical shrapnel to Buffalo, Oakland, and New England in the process. After a 33-3 shellacking at the hands of the antagonistic Patriots to open their season followed by a pair of narrow losses (by a combined six points to Seattle and San Francisco), the Steelers' fate seemed officially sealed when franchise face Ben Roethlisberger was lost to an injury.
In the midst of their early-season turmoil, the Steelers made the curious move of trading their upcoming first-round pick to the draft capital-hoarding Miami Dolphins for cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick. On paper, it was a solid move. Fitzpatrick had a decent rookie season and seemed ready to do more as a former No. 11 overall pick. But tossing away such valuable capital-- and with a looming decision potentially coming via-a-vis the aging Roethlisberger-- it seemed foolhardy to trade a first-round pick away to contend in what was supposedly a lost season. The Ravens placing their claim to the AFC North throne, solidified later on with a prime time win over New England, only made the trade more questionable.
Five wins in six games later, the Steelers have found themselves in most unusual but welcome territory: this period has allowed them to contend now and mold their possible future simultaneously.
Pittsburgh, current holders of the AFC's final wild card spot, has done at least a little preparation for the post-Roethlisberger proceedings. 2018's draft saw them take accoladed Big 12 quarterback Mason Rudolph in the third-round. Forced into an audition, Rudolph has responded respectably. When a backup quarterback, especially one with no meaningful NFL experience, is forced to take over for a franchise staple, disaster can strike. The best you can hope for is that the new guy doesn't actively contribute to your potential demise. When he's the first realistic heir to a franchise's quarterback's throne, his value takes on a whole new importance.
Rudolph has played as well as one can hope considering his circumstances. Save for a prime-time hiccup in Miami, he has been effective and timely, showing up when he's needed most and pulling off big moments while keeping a low turnover count. The Steelers thus have a contingency plan if and when Roethlisberger decides to call it a career. Rudolph's stats aren't the flashiest, and no one's itching to make him their starting fantasy football quarterback. But, like perhaps Alex Smith before him, he's set to build at least a decent NFL career by completing the one cardinal rule of football: win.
The Oklahoma State product isn't the only young buck rising to the occasion. Brown's departure has allowed young receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to take the next step of his evolution. Incoming third-rounder Dionte Johnson has teamed up with fellow young talents like James Washington to emerge as go-to targets for their young QB. Ditto for Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds, who have stepped up in the absence of James Conner.
In that span, a tough defense has also risen up, with Fitzpatrick playing the role of MVP. He's earned some big-time interceptions and stops already during his time in black and yellow, including two clutch takeaways against his former squad. When all is said and done, Fitzpatrick could be well seen as the spark that ignited a black-and-yellow fire that could potentially burn the rest of the AFC.
Keeping pace in the present won't be easy. The AFC playoff picture remains crowded, but the schedule is manageable. Two matchups with the rival Browns await, as does one with the winless Cincinnati Bengals. The mediocre Arizona Cardinals and eerily bad New York Jets are also on the docket.
It could be a mere mirage. A third act twist could await the protagonists. But for now, the Steelers are drumming up an interesting story. The sequels could be even better.