View Full Version : Don't expect major changes

01-10-2010, 03:30 AM
Steelers: Don't expect major changes
Post-season analysis
Sunday, January 10, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

How close is close? Last season, the Steelers claimed the cigar; this one? The cigar butt.

The Arizona Cardinals reached a Super Bowl last year and nearly won it after finishing their regular season with a 9-7 record. The Steelers, who barely beat the Cardinals to win their sixth title, finished this season 9-7 and did not make the playoffs.

Of their seven losses, the most lopsided was a 13-6 upset by the Cleveland Browns. Of those seven losses, five came by three points, two in overtime. Thus, the Steelers were 14 total points from going 14-2 in 2009.

Can they afford to think that way as they prepare for 2010?

"No," coach Mike Tomlin answered. "That's the National Football League. Look at how many of our victories were like that. This is a fragile thing. It is."

Along the way to their Super Bowl XLIII victory, the Steelers won half of their 12 regular-season victories by a touchdown or less. It could be the law of averages merely evened things in 2009. It could be that the difference between the past two seasons was the absence of Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith on defense.

Or maybe it is a more ominous sign that unless everything works perfectly for the Steelers and no key players miss much time, they are not good enough. Maybe they got lucky in 2008 more than unlucky in 2009.

The prism at which they look at 2010 certainly has changed from the one they viewed a year ago. Last year, they were Super Bowl champs with 20 of 22 starters returning. Now they are a 9-7 team that has aged quickly on defense and has an offensive line more than a few blocks from becoming average.

There will be no quick fixes and despite what linebacker James Harrison predicted, no major changes. Tomlin already shot one Harrison theory down when he fired his line coach and one special teams coach, and his quarterbacks coach retired. Those were hardly sweeping changes.

The same will hold true when Tomlin, director of football operations Kevin Colbert and president Art Rooney II evaluate not only what went wrong but what they need to do as they move forward. The answer: They cannot do much.

This would seem to be the perfect time for a Steelers makeover. They have an old defense on the decline and an offensive line that needs an infusion. And what luck! It appears this will be an uncapped year because most people in the industry believe there will be no new collective bargaining agreement by March 1, thus creating the first season with no salary cap since 1992.

That means the Steelers could spend as much as they want to acquire players and also could release players with large future salary-cap figures without taking a hit. However, by all indications, sources say the Steelers will operate as they've done in previous seasons. They will not spend more than they normally do and not take advantage of the uncapped year to get out from under big contracts. The league wants its teams to follow the spirit of the salary cap and the Steelers plan to do that.

For example, if they wanted to and asked James Farrior to take a pay cut the way they did with Jerome Bettis, they could cut him and have his $1 million pro-rated signing bonus due annually over the next three years all count this year as $3 million. Then they could sign him to a salary somewhat less than the $2.825 million due to him.

Things like that apparently will not happen, though. And there will be more than 200 players who would have been unrestricted free agents that will be restricted because the new uncapped-year rules extend the time a player can become a UFA from four to six years. That's good news for the Steelers when it comes to Willie Colon, bad news when it comes to possibly signing a young free agent.

They have some contracts of their own to negotiate, not counting potential premier free agents Casey Hampton, Jeff Reed, Ryan Clark and Willie Parker. Traditionally, they negotiate an extension with a player entering the final year of his contract. In that category are Santonio Holmes, Ike Taylor and LaMarr Woodley, three relatively young and important members of their team. There also is Tomlin, due a traditional extension with two years left on his.

The change in ownership did not bring a large infusion of money into the franchise. All it did was bring in new partners to buy out the ones who left. The spending might become more frugal because of loans that had to be floated in the franchise transaction.

So, what will they do? They will be able to make few if any significant changes. The changes that occur likely will happen as they have over the past five years in which they sign a few free agents, maybe even one who will start.

The defense might lose Clark (signed as a UFA with little fanfare in 2006) and Hampton to free agency and perhaps Deshea Townsend and Tyrone Carter. The rest of the defense might look just as it did this season, only with Polamalu and Smith rejoining it.

They can put the franchise tag on Hampton, but he contends they promised they would not do that. The tag would cost a $6 million salary, twice what Hampton made in 2009. If he leaves, they could turn to Chris Hoke and maybe newly re-signed Scott Paxson to fill the void for 2010. They might be forced to try defensive end Ziggy Hood there. He does not fit the profile of a nose tackle. Neither did Kimo von Oelhoffen, but he played the position for one season before moving to end when Hampton came aboard.

Farrior's play fell off in 2009 but they have no one on their roster to take his place. They have two young cornerbacks they drafted last year, Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett, who can compete with William Gay at left cornerback. Lewis also might be in the mix with Ryan Mundy to replace Clark if he leaves.

And, of course, there will be all those draft picks and rookie free agents that arrive in April. Except for one thing -- no rookie draft pick has started on defense since Hampton in 2001. One of the things that makes Dick LeBeau's defense so good, its complexity, also makes it difficult for rookies to learn it quickly enough to start. Polamalu could not do it, Lawrence Timmons could not do it and Hood could not do it.

The offense is in better shape, excellent shape actually, in every area but one -- the offensive line. Coach Larry Zierlein became the sacrificial lamb for a line that has been in flux over the past three seasons with new starters across the board since 2007, some of them twice removed such as right guard Trai Essex, who replaced injured Darnell Stapleton, who replaced injured Kendall Simmons.

Four of those linemen received new contracts in 2009 -- in the cases of tackle Max Starks and guard Chris Kemoeatu, sizeable ones. Right tackle Colon, the lineman Zierlein said was his best, will be a restricted free agent if there is no new CBA and the Steelers can keep him.

Still, there are four young linemen who could come into play in 2010. Ramon Foster, an undrafted rookie last year, started four games at left guard for an injured Kemoeatu and held his own. Tackle Tony Hills, a fourth-round draft choice in 2008, guard Kraig Urbik, a high third-round pick last year, and center/guard Doug Legursky are the others.

The Steelers might need another running back because it appears Parker will leave as a free agent if someone else promises him a chance to at least share the duties at the position, which he did not get after he returned to health in the second half of this season.

They also might add a fullback. Before Canadian Football League fullback Rolly Lumballa signed with the Miami Dolphins this week, he entertained an offer from the Steelers. They have Frank Summers, who could become that fullback, coming off injured reserve.

It has become clear that Tomlin wants more emphasis on the running game next season, although Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers will continue to be the focus. Gaining yards on the ground was not the main problem for the Steelers last season; getting the short ones and running when they had to run were. That might not require a big fix, merely adding a good fullback and tweaking the philosophy. They also must do something about Roethlisberger's sacks -- he had a career-high 50, which brings to 189 his total over the past four seasons.

If the Steelers can make those adjustments, they will not need major changes to compete for the playoffs next season. Playing dominant defense in the NFL has become more difficult and less important as the rules and the calls on the field swing widely toward offensive football, particularly the passing game.

At least in that area, the Steelers are well-suited, and they should be able to at least play competent defense in 2010.

It was shocking to many that the Steelers ranked seventh on offense in yards produced and fifth on defense in yards allowed and did not make the playoffs. A quick look inside some other numbers, though, shows why.

The Steelers ranked 16th as a pass defense, down from No. 1 in 2008, and they were 28th in the league in allowing third downs to be converted. Their offense was only 17th in converting third downs and ranked 21st in scoring touchdowns once they reached the opponent 20 (56 trips, 27 touchdowns). Combined, they were 20th in the league in recovering turnovers vs. giving them up at minus-3 to the bad.

"Situational football defines us," Tomlin said in his season-ending news conference Tuesday. "I've said that a lot in good times and in bad. It's no surprise to me that we were below the line at times in that area because we're sitting here today. That's why I put the emphasis on it that I do. It's the difference between winning and losing."

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