Steelers midseason report card
Wed Nov 7, 2012.
by Mike Bires
Now that the Steelers have reached the midpoint of their season, it’s time to look back on how they got here. At 5-3, they’re in second place in the AFC North, one game behind the division-leading Ravens (6-2).
Sure, there have been some bumps in the road along the way, but they'll still legitimate playoff contenders. Today, Times pro football reporter Mike Bires grades the Steelers with a position-by-position mid-term analysis:
Except for the season opener vs. Peyton Manning and the Broncos, Ben Roethlisberger has out-played every QB the Steelers have faced. In his ninth pro season, he’s off to his best start. He’s been especially sharp at home where he’s completed 68.6 percent of his passes with no interceptions and a 108.2 passer rating.
He’s well on his way to earning team MVP honors for the second time.
This is a most intriguing collection that includes three backs with at least two starts.
Rashard Mendenhall, a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, has only played in two games because of injuries. But in recent weeks, the rushing attack has still managed to improve significantly with a RB drafted in the sixth round (Jonathan Dwyer) and one signed as an undrafted free agent (Isaac Redman).
Dwyer (122 and 107) and Redman (147) have combined 376 yards over last three games. That’s the Steelers’ best three-game stretch for featured backs since Willie Parker ran for 416 in a three-week span in 2006.
Rookie Chris Rainey and second-year pro Baron Batch, who were fifth- and seventh-round draft picks, have yet to make much of an impact in the few carries they’ve gotten. But they’ve been serviceable subs when called upon.
Dwyer and Redman rank 34th and 35th in the league in rushing with 299 and 274 yards. As a team, the Steelers only rank 21st. But they’re getting better and they’ve only lost one fumble in 217 rushing attempts.
One of the keys to the running game surge has been the play of Will Johnson. He’s on the field for around half of the Steelers’ offensive snaps each game, some at tight end and some at halfback. But in the 24-20 win over the Giants when Redman went wild, Johnson lined up for 18 of his 32 snaps in the backfield as a lead blocker. On some of his blocks, Johnson crushed NYG defenders.
A first-year pro, Johnson made the team because of the season-ending knee injury suffered by TE/FB David Johnson during the preseason. W.J. has been a pleasant surprise.
With the Steelers dinking and dunking so much under first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the wide receivers aren’t racking up prolific numbers. With 42 and 39 catches, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace aren’t among the NFL’s top 20 in receptions or receiving yards. But that doesn’t mean they’re under-achieving.
For one thing, Roethlisberger is clicking with tight end Heath Miller, who has 39 receptions, including a team-high six TDs catches.
Second, Roethlisberger is throwing more to his backs, who’ve already caught 42 passes.
Also, the Steelers have been content to march the ball down the field methodically with long drives that eat up the clock. The Steelers lead in the league in third-down conversion (51.3 percent) and rank second in time of possession (34:40).
Wallace has had his share of drops, but he’s caught TD passes that have covered 82 and 51 yards. He’s still a dangerous weapon every time he’s on the field.
If the Pro Bowl teams were chosen today, New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Miller would represent the AFC. Gronkowski (7) is the league’s only tight end with more TD catches than Miller. And like Gronkowski, Miller is an exceptional blocker.
Rookie David Paulson and journeyman Leonard Pope are the other tight ends on the roster. The Steelers like Paulson’s potential. Pope has been somewhat of a disappointment. He had been with Haley the last six years (three in Kansas City when Haley was coach, three in Arizona where Haley was O.C.). He’s just caught two passes although one went for a touchdown.
After a shaky start, the O-line is developing into a cohesive unit that has sparked the resurgence of the Steelers’ running game.
Maurkice Pouncey continues to play all-star caliber center. Willie Colon’s transition from right tackle to left guard is all but over. After a rocky start, he’s been mauling people. Ramon Foster is playing well enough at right guard that David DeCastro might not be able to nudge him out of a starting job once he returns from a knee injury.
Max Starks has been Mr. Reliable at left tackle just as he has for the past several years. At right tackle, rookie Mike Adams has struggled at times with pass protection but he’s a beast when blocking on running plays. Adams may keep the starting job when Marcus Gilbert returns from his ankle injury.
It’s been relatively quiet for the front line, which is often par for the course in the Steelers’ base defense. Its primary job is to occupy as many blockers as possible and let the linebackers make plays. That’s pretty much what’s happened.
Defensive end Ziggy Hood is the only starter on the D-line with a sack. Back-ups Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon also have one sack apiece. Early in the season, veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton looked like his play was slipping. But in recent games, “Big Snack” has played much better.
In each of the past five years, at least one Steelers linebacker has made the Pro Bowl. That streak could end this year.
Obviously, injuries to James Harrison (knee) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) have prevented them from playing at an all-star level. But after missing the first three games, Harrison is slowly but surely working his way back. As defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, “He hasn’t been bad.”
Woodley, who’s missed one game and a huge chunk of another, looked impressive at times Sunday in the win over the Giants when he recorded his third sack of the season. Larry Foote and backup Jason Worilds also have three sacks each.
Lawrence Timmons has been the Steelers’ most consistent linebacker. But as a first-round pick in the 2007 draft, the Steelers wouldn’t mind if Timmons could have a spectacular year like Harrison and Woodley have had in the past.
Even though strong safety Troy Polamalu has only played one full game, the Steelers’ secondary has been the strength of the defense.
Cornerback Ike Taylor rebounded nicely from a couple early season meltdowns. He even got his first interception of the season vs. the Giants. Keenan Lewis, who’s in his first season as a starting corner, improves with each game he plays. Ryan Clark, the hard-hitting free safety, is playing the best football of his career and has been the Steelers’ defensive MVP. Now that Will Allen has replaced Ryan Mundy at Polamalu’s position, there’s stability at strong safety.
If not for all the holding calls and illegal blocks on kick returns, the Steelers would be thrilled with their overall special teams effort.
Rainey ranks seventh in the league with a 29.1 average on kickoff returns. Antonio Brown would be among the league leaders in punt returns if his 72- and 78-yard returns for TDs weren’t nullified by penalties.
Kicker Shaun Suisham has been close to perfect, making 17 of 18 field goal attempts. His only miss was a 54-yarder.
Punter Drew Butler ranks 27th with a 43.5 average. But all things considered, he’s a rookie who’s doing well enough in all phases of punting.
It’s taken a while for the Todd Haley offense to click, but the Steelers have achieved a nice run-pass ratio the last three weeks. Perhaps most importantly, Haley is allowing Roethlisberger, the face of the franchise, to flourish as he did when Bruce Arians was here.
After those two hiccups in Oakland and Tennessee where the defense collapsed, Dick LeBeau’s defenders have regrouped and now lead the league in total defense and pass defense.
After a 2-3 start, the Steelers have won three straight. The Steelers are one of four AFC teams at 5-3. Only two teams in the conference have better records (the 7-1 Texans and 6-2 Ravens).
In the first five years of the Mike Tomlin regime, the Steelers’ reached the midpoint at 6-2. They failed to do that this year, but they are very much in the thick of the playoff chase.