View Full Version : Interesting: PRE-season assessment of the Steelers

10-20-2010, 08:53 AM
http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2010 ... n-preview/ (http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/pittsburgh-steelers-2010-season-preview/)

August 2, 2010, 5:30 am
Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 Season Preview

Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com. This is the 32nd and final team preview. The whole series is available here.

Most fans know that the Pittsburgh Steelers “get it.” The N.F.L.-high six Lombardi Trophies verify this. Even without those trophies, this franchise has been wildly successful. Only twice since 1972 have the Steelers posted back-to-back losing seasons (’85-’86 and ’98-’99). And never in that span have they failed to win at least five games.

What’s their secret? For starters, stability. The Rooney Family has owned this franchise since the dawn of time. Since the N.F.L.-A.F.L. merger, only three men have served as coach: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

The stability isn’t the leading ingredient, though. What really sets the Steelers apart is the way the organization stays true to its identity without being imprisoned by it.

This past off-season provided a perfect snapshot. A pillar of the Steeler organization is character. Pittsburgh is one of America’s few major metropolitan areas that can trumpet itself as blue-collar without showing false modesty. The Steelers build their roster with their reputation in the community in mind. This reputation is important enough that when Santonio Holmes, a 26-year-old star with a Super Bowl M.V.P. award on his mantel, was arrested and suspended for a second time, the owner Art Rooney instructed the director of football operations Kevin Colbert to get rid of him – even if it meant trading a first-round talent for a fifth-round pick.

At the same time — and granted, the team walks a very fine line — the Steelers aren’t hog-tied by high-character stipulations. The front office was infuriated by the suspension-inducing off-field conduct of Ben Roethlisberger. But, contrary to news media reports in April, the Steelers never seriously explored trades for Roethlisberger. Why?

Because you don’t win Super Bowls by trading a 28-year-old two-time champion who has more physical talent than any quarterback in the league. Double standard here? Well, you could certainly argue in the affirmative — and this is where the team leaves itself open to criticism — but not if your standard is maximizing the success of the Steeler brand. Sure, keeping a dishonored quarterback hurts that brand, but not nearly as much as winning helps the brand.

The Steelers publicly censured Roethlisberger and supported Roger Goodell’s decision to issue a six-game suspension (barring bad behavior, it will be reduced to four games). And you can bet that even one more legal incident would stamp a ticket out of town. There are concerns about Roethlisberger’s reputation in the locker room. But the uncomfortable truth is his reputation hasn’t mattered in the past (the two titles).

On the field, the organization is also able to maintain its identity without being stifled by it. Case in point: there were whispers that the front office wanted the offensive coordinator Bruce Arians fired this spring. The Steelers have long been a run-first team. But in the past two seasons, they’ve finished 22nd and 19th in rushing. In speaking to reporters about the run game, Arians caused a stir when he joked that his system didn’t need a fullback (heresy to Pittsburgh’s football purists).

Arians wasn’t fired, though. Mike Tomlin realized that, while the offense probably needed more balance, it didn’t make a lot of sense to dismiss the guy who called plays in a Super Bowl victory two years ago. A lot of front offices would not have let the head coach make this call. But that’s part of the Steelers not being limited by their past. Ownership is humble and flexible enough to let Tomlin do his job.

Tomlin himself embodies the Steeler mantra. He was hired as a defensive coach straight from the Tony Dungy 4-3 Tampa 2 school. But when he got here, Tomlin took a look at nose tackle Casey Hampton, outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, the utility star Troy Polamalu and the sparkling résumé of the coordinator Dick LeBeau and decided it was best to ignore his ego and leave the zone-blitzing 3-4 defense intact. Today, that zone-blitzing 3-4 is the reason Pittsburgh enters 2010 as a Super Bowl contender.

You might think “Super Bowl contender” is hyperbole considering this team went 9-7 and missed the playoffs last season. But last season was something of a fluke. The ’09 Steelers were the first team since the ’98 Super Bowl champion Broncos not to trail by more than 7 points at any time during the first 12 games of a season. The ’98 Broncos were 12-0 in those 12 games. The ’09 Steelers, thanks to atrocious kickoff coverage and a Polamalu-less secondary that had a penchant for blowing coverages late in games, were 6-6. Improve the kickoff and pass coverage a little and the nail-biting losses don’t pile up.

Then again, losing nail biters is a form of handling adversity poorly. The Steelers know this. And, presumably, they’ve learned from the experience. They’d better have learned. After all, thanks to the actions of their star quarterback, they’re facing adversity right out of the gate in 2010.


It’s somewhat surprising that the Steelers are going with Byron Leftwich rather than Dennis Dixon during Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension. True, the 25-year-old Dixon is meager-armed and still raw. Bruce Arians had to drastically trim the playbook when Dixon started against the Ravens in Week 12 last year. But at least Dixon has the athleticism to make plays as a scrambler. Leftwich is a statue playing behind an offensive line that has yielded 47, 46 and 50 sacks over the last three seasons.

Obviously, a chunk of those sacks can be chalked up to Roethlisberger’s tendency to hold the ball. We know the deal: the sacks are a trade-off for the spectacular sandlot plays that have been the driving force behind Pittsburgh’s success in recent years.

Fortunately, come Week 1, the Steeler receivers will have had several months to get used to the long windup and high velocity that define Leftwich’s throws. And the team shouldn’t have any problem transitioning from Leftwich to Roethlisberger in October.

The bigger challenge will be replacing Santonio Holmes. Conventional two-receiver formations won’t be an issue, as Holmes’s replacement, second-year wideout Mike Wallace, is a budding star. Wallace has terrific straight-line speed and already shows a veteran’s understanding of how route combinations work against various coverages. Opposite Wallace, of course, is Hines Ward, a Hall of Fame caliber possession receiver who, at 34, is coming off the second-most productive season of his career.

The issue will be the depth. If Wallace starts, who comes off the bench in passing situations? The Steelers are kidding themselves if they think the Antwaan Randle El they signed in spring is the same Antwaan Randle El they failed to re-sign back in 2006. Randle El is only 30, but he’s lost too much of the quickness that once made him a dynamic slot weapon. It’s not inconceivable that Randle El could experience a renaissance here, but it’s also not inconceivable that the graceful but uninspiring ex-Niner Arnaz Battle could assume the No. 3 job instead.

Soft-handed tight end Heath Miller will probably become more than just an underneath option in the passing game. The Steelers may be inclined to make more of a receiver out of the 6-7, 270-pound tight end Matt Spaeth. That is, if Spaeth can keep his job ahead of blocking H-back Sean McHugh.

Spaeth and McHugh will both see plenty of snaps in 2010 because Arians wasn’t joking when he said his offense doesn’t use a fullback. Yes, last year’s fifth-round pick, Frank Summers, is on the roster, but a majority of Pittsburgh’s runs will come out of two-tight end, one-back formations. Rising star Rashard Mendenhall is at his best in these sets. Mendenhall has good burst and an impressive combination of power and agility. He has matured since being a first-round pick in ’08 and should post at least 1,350 yards in 2010. The power runner Jonathan Dwyer was drafted in the sixth round, but the third-down veteran Mewelde Moore – who struggles in pass protection but thrives in all other realms – remains the top backup.

The Steelers have managed to function with a mediocre offensive line in recent years. Don’t expect anything to change. Remarkable run blocking makes left guard Chris Kemoeatu the star. He’s the only source of genuine mobility up front, though. Willie Colon was the other standout blocker, but a torn Achilles’ over the summer wiped out his season. It’d be surprising if the Steelers replaced Colon with the mediocre ex-Bill Jonathan Scott. Some have said Pittsburgh could move decent-but-heavy-footed Max Starks back to right tackle, but that would leave a hole at left tackle.

A better solution would be to move right guard Trai Essex back to his natural tackle position. Backup Ramon Foster can then fill in inside. In that case, though, the Steelers would probably have to give in and immediately start precocious first-round rookie Maurkice Pouncey at center. If center Justin Hartwig remained the starter next to Foster, you’d have two guys inside who are excruciatingly slow off the snap. Because last year’s third-round pick Kraig Urbik has been a disappointment, the Steelers would most likely turn to the third-year tackle Tony Hills if they decided to keep Foster as a utility backup. (Or, they could decide to just go with Jonathan Scott after all – time will tell.)


You can’t overstate the significance of a healthy Troy Polamalu. With him on the field, Dick LeBeau has not only the league’s best defensive playmaker to fiddle with, but a flexible weapon who can disguise attacks. Polamalu thrives both as a centerfielder and eighth man in the box. With his return, expect more consistency from the hard-hitting free safety Ryan Clark.

Pittsburgh’s zone-blitz packages are dependent on having solid, versatile cornerbacks holding the fort on the back end. Ike Taylor is a bona fide No. 1 corner who would be a household name if not for so many dropped interceptions. The 30-year-old Taylor is playing for a new contract in 2010. The Steelers eagerly traded a pair of late-round picks to Arizona in order to reacquire the fundamentally sound veteran Bryant McFadden. In doing this, they essentially admitted it was a mistake to anoint Willie Gay the No. 2 corner. Gay is back in the slot, but if he continues to give up ZIP codes’ worth of separation to receivers, the Steelers will turn to a LeBeau favorite, Keenan Lewis, or last year’s fifth-round pick, Joe Burnett.

As important as the secondary is, the front seven defines this unit. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley form the best outside linebacking tandem in football. In fact, you could argue that either is the best outside linebacker in the league. Both have speed, earth-shaking power and athleticism. You can’t consistently pass block either man one-on-one, and it’s fruitless to run directly at either of them.

In a case of the rich potentially getting richer, the Steelers also have the rookie second-round outside linebacker Jason Worilds, an intriguing athlete who will spend the next few years coming off the bench and being groomed as Harrison’s replacement. In the short term, Worilds will compete for playing time with the fourth-round pick Thaddeus Gibson.

McFadden wasn’t the only veteran brought back. Larry Foote was given a three-year, $9.3 million contract to try to capture from Lawrence Timmons his old starting inside linebacker job. Foote is a resolute tackler. Timmons has good explosiveness, but doesn’t stand out in traffic. Regardless of who starts, each will see significant action in 2010. James Farrior returns at the other inside spot. The 35-year-old Farrior doesn’t quite get off blocks the way he used to, but his quickness and instincts still make him usually the first tackler to meet the ballcarrier.

It was wise of Kevin Colbert to give nose tackle Casey Hampton a three-year, $21.3 million contract. (Equally wise was the $1 million weight clause Colbert inserted in the deal.) Hampton, a quintessential plugger, is the prime factor in this perennially staunch run defense. At 33 (in September), he’s not yet wearing down, but endurance has always been a problem for the “325”-pounder. Fortunately, the undersize but high-octane backup Chris Hoke still has at least one good year left in him.

Defensive end Aaron Smith is 34 and coming back from season-ending rotator cuff surgery. He’s expected to continue playing at a high level, though that’s not to say last year’s first-round pick, Ziggy Hood, won’t become a bigger part of the rotation. Hood has great quickness – he just needs to hone his mechanics. Right end Brett Keisel isn’t a big name, but he’s an important X-factor. Keisel thrives in all facets except as a playside run anchor. His mobility and versatility are a key to creating the chaotic presnap deceit this front seven is built on.

Special Teams

Kicker Jeff Reed wants a long-term contract but will have to settle for a $2.8 million franchise tag for now. Reed is accurate, but the Steelers want him to improve his kickoff depth. In fact, they want the entire kick coverage unit to improve. Last season, Pittsburgh surrendered four kickoff returns for touchdowns and several field-position-altering returns. To help in this area, the Steelers signed the ex-Buc Will Allen and hired Al Everest as the special-teams coordinator. The rest of the special teams are fine. Daniel Sepulveda is a very good placement punter. The quick and darting Stefan Logan is adequate in the return game.

Bottom Line

Same old rock-solid Steelers. If they can successfully tread water while Roethlisberger is out, they’ll be contenders the rest of the way.

Prediction: 2nd A.F.C. North

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:loser :lol:

anger 82&95
10-20-2010, 10:05 AM
A true prognosticator would have predicated that a certain Steeler Linebacker would be penalized for playing the game too effectively.

10-20-2010, 10:16 AM
You might think “Super Bowl contender” is hyperbole considering this team went 9-7 and missed the playoffs last season. But last season was something of a fluke. The ’09 Steelers were the first team since the ’98 Super Bowl champion Broncos not to trail by more than 7 points at any time during the first 12 games of a season. The ’98 Broncos were 12-0 in those 12 games. The ’09 Steelers, thanks to atrocious kickoff coverage and a Polamalu-less secondary that had a penchant for blowing coverages late in games, were 6-6. Improve the kickoff and pass coverage a little and the nail-biting losses don’t pile up.

I'm surprised that this is the first time that I have heard this stat.