GERRY DULAC grades the Steelers' effort in a 12-4 season that ended last Sunday in Denver
Sunday, January 15, 2012
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger passed for more than 4,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl, but his season was punctuated by turnovers (1, sacks (40) and, most especially, injuries. Once he sustained a high-ankle sprain Dec. 8, the offense was never really the same. He had his moments such as outdueling Tom Brady and throwing five TDs against the Titans. But, with a chance to mount a last-minute FG drive and end the game in regulation vs. the Broncos, a costly fumble derailed the opportunity. That seemed to be a microcosm of a season in which the Steelers scored 30 or more points just three times.
RUNNING BACKS C
Rashard Mendenhall waited too long to start being an effective part of the offense, but he was having his best four-game stretch when he was injured and missed the playoff game in Denver. Mendenhall did not have the same impact as he did in 2010, but that was because his attempts were down as the offense leaned more on the pass. But his late-season surge gave him a 4.1-yard average, which was better than 2010. Isaac Redman showed in the Denver game why he deserves to be more of a contributor in 2012. It should be noted the Steelers finished with their highest per-carry average (4.4 yards) since 2001.
WIDE RECEIVERS A-
The emergence of Antonio Brown gave the team two 1,000-yard receivers and combined to push Hines Ward to a diminished role. Mike Wallace was named a Pro Bowl starter after catching 72 passes for 1,193 yards. But his impact waned late, with just two catches longer than 25 yards in the last nine games. Expectations for Emmanuel Sanders were dimmed by foot problems, and Jerricho Cotchery didn't start contributing until late in the season. And it seems that TE Heath Miller never is used enough, especially in the red zone. Despite their numbers, the receivers didn't influence games the way many expected.
OFFENSIVE LINE C-
When Max Starks was brought back to be the left tackle in Week 5, his return stabilized a line that had lost RT Willie Colon. But injuries and inconsistency were a problem at left guard, where four different players started. Maurkice Pouncey became an All-Pro, but his late-season injury hampered his performance and caused him to miss another big postseason game. Rookie Marcus Gilbert was a surprise replacing Colon and played so well he will likely go to camp as the starting LT. It was certainly not a dominating unit, but, then, the team won its two most recent Super Bowls with lines that performed no better than this one.
DEFENSIVE LINE B-
After a season in which they allowed just two teams to rush for more than 100 yards, the unit saw two players do it in the first four games and three overall. Part of the reason is the linemen, especially NT Casey Hampton, did not adjust to being cut- and chop-blocked and lost early games vs. the Ravens and Texans. It is difficult to tell how much the season-ending injury to Aaron Smith in Week 4 hurt. DE Brett Keisel probably had a better season than last year, when he went to the Pro Bowl. But the line showed it was just not the dominating unit it was in 2010, when the Steelers had the third-best rush defense in NFL history.
This is an area that failed to make a significant impact, but through no fault of its own. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were fine when healthy, but they effectively never played together after Week 4 because of injuries. Combined, they missed 12 games, and that's a lot of lost manpower at arguably the most important position in a 3-4 defense. After signing a big contract, ILB Lawrence Timmons never made the splash plays expected, though in his defense, he had to play all four LB positions because of injuries. James Farrior's impact was limited because the coaches gave him periodic rests because of his age.
DEFENSIVE BACKS A
The improvement of this unit was the biggest surprise, especially considering that it led the NFL in pass defense without any personnel changes from 2010. CB Ike Taylor's performance in Denver soiled what had been an outstanding regular season in which he was often assigned the other team's top receiver. The development of Keenan Lewis allowed the team to rely on him as a consistent nickel back and William Gay put together a solid season when Bryant McFadden was demoted. S Troy Polamalu did not have the interceptions, but his play was just as good as 2010. And Ryan Clark had his best season.
SPECIAL TEAMS B+
Antonio Brown made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist. He returned just one punt for a TD, but was third in kick returns and fifth in punt returns in the AFC, and became the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season. Jeremy Kapinos was a nice pickup when Daniel Sepulveda had another season-ending injury, and the coverage units did not allow a punt return longer than 20 yards or a kick return longer than 45. K Shaun Suisham's inconsistency from beyond 40 yards was a problem and one reason Mike Tomlin didn't try a 48-yard FG late in the second Ravens game.
Despite all the injuries to key players, the Steelers won 12 games for the second year in a row and third time in four years. Mike Tomlin's ability to marshall his team through tough times is unparalleled, but he also showed he would not hesitate to make changes (see: Hines Ward). Still, the offense never performed to expectation and the defense repeatedly had problems getting off the field. The failure to stop the Ravens on a 92-yard drive late in the second meeting ultimately proved to be their undoing. It cost them a division title and first-round bye, not to mention an opportunity to rest their injured players in the stretch.
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