Failing marks: Grading the 2012 Steelers


Lucy Schaly of The Times

Posted: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 7:56 pm
By Mike Bires [email][/email] | 0 comments
The NFL playoffs start this weekend without the Steelers, and that doesn’t sit well with anyone in the organization. This is a franchise that expects to be part of the Super Bowl tournament every year.
“We are on the outside looking in, and we don’t feel great about it,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “As a matter of fact, we dislike it.”
By finishing 8-8 the way the Steelers did, there’s plenty to dislike.
For every high note, there was a letdown. Injuries, sub-par performances and questionable coaching decisions paved the way for a season of disappointing inconsistency.
Today, Times pro football reporter Mike Bires takes a look at the 2012 Steelers and grades them position-by-position:
At mid-season, Ben Roethlisberger was at least in the NFL Most Valuable Player conversation. Then his season -- and the Steelers’ -- turned for the worse. After Roethlisberger suffered a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib in the Nov. 12 Monday night win over the Chiefs, the Steelers won only two of their last seven.
Roethlisberger finished seventh in the league with a 97.0 passer rating. But the man who prides himself most on winning went 1-3 after returning to the starting lineup.
He says the Steelers would have made the playoffs with “better play from the quarterback.”
Grade: B-minus
Several contributing factors led to the mess that was the Steelers’ rushing attack.
* Rashard Mendenhall’s injuries (knee and Achilles) and attitude.
* Injuries on the offensive line.
* Lack of commitment to the running game in general early in the season.
* The running back by committee rotation early in the year.
* Minimal use of the fullback as a lead blocker.
Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman may not be the most talented ball carriers in the world but if Dwyer can rush for back-to-back 100-yard games (vs. Bengals and Redskins) and Redman can rush for 147 (vs. Giants), their skills were good enough.
The Steelers ranking 27th in rushing this year is unacceptable.
Grade: C-minus
It’s hard to get a true gauge on Will Johnson because he hardly played. For example, in the last two games of the season, he was on the field for only 37 of 124 offensive snaps. Johnson only carried the ball twice all year, but he did catch more passes for more yards (15 for 137 and 1 TD) than scatback Chris Rainey (14-60-0).
Grade: C
Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders like to call themselves the “Young Money Crew.” But based on their collective performance, the “Loose Change Gang” is more appropriate.
Wallace was a problem from the moment he decided to hold out of training camp over contractual matters. Multiple dropped passes and a fumble in a home loss to the Ravens overshadowed big plays he made. Brown missed three games with an ankle injury, but seldom did he live up to big-money deal he signed in August. Sanders’ play was marginal at best as the No. 3 wide receiver.
A year ago, the Steelers had two 1,000-yard receivers (Wallace and Brown). They didn’t have any this year.
Grade: C
Some skeptics have suggested that Heath Miller earned team MVP honors by default. No one else was a worthy candidate. While the MVP vote was a one-man race, Miller was a deserving winner. Had he not missed the last game with a knee injury, he may have led the team in three receiving categories. He was first with 71 catches. He tied for first with Mike Wallace with most TD catches (eight). And he was second on the team with 816 receiving yards.
Grade: A
When the Steelers went to Buffalo for their third preseason game, the O-line seemed set. Maurkice Pouney, center. Willie Colon, left guard. David DeCastro, right guard. Max Starks, left tackle. Marcus Gilbert, right tackle. But not once did the Steelers start that combination during the regular season.
DeCastro, the team's first-round draft pick, blew his knee out in Buffalo and didn’t start until the Dec. 16 game in Dallas. Gilbert only played five games before an ankle injury put him on injured reserve. Rookie tackle Mike Adams replaced Gilbert for six games before missing the last five with an ankle injury. Colon missed five games with a knee injury.
Four different players started at least one game at left guard. There were three different starters at right tackle. So much for cohesiveness.
Grade: Incomplete
One of the primary roles for D-linemen in the 3-4 scheme is to occupy blockers so linebacker can make plays. Historically, the men on the front line of defense don’t produce a ton of big plays.
Such was the case again this year. D-end Brett Keisel finished with 4.5 sacks. That’s the most he’s had since 2006 when he had 5.5.
There are some who say that the Steelers should get more from Ziggy Hood, a first-round pick in the '09 draft. But maybe the Steelers should never have taken a D-end in the first round to begin with considering the way they use D-ends. But they did it again in 2011 when they took Cameron Heyward.
The feeling in the locker room is that Hood played well this year and that nose tackle Casey Hampton, at age 35, was clogging up the middle like the Casey Hampton of old in the last few weeks of the season.
Grade: B-minus
On the inside, Lawrence Timmons may have had his best year. He shared the team lead with six sacks and led the team with three interceptions. His pick six in the loss in Cleveland was the Steelers’ only defensive TD of the year. Larry Foote, the other inside ‘backer, played as well as can be expected. At least well enough that people quickly forgot about James Farrior.
But on the outside, there was a major drop-off. Last year, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 18 sacks (nine each). This year they combined for just 10. Granted, they both missed three starts due to injury but rarely did either play all-star caliber football like they had in the past.
With just four sacks, Woodley was especially disappointing. In his last seven games, he had just one sack and no forced fumbles. He may have been the Steelers’ MDP this year as in Most Disappointing Player.
Grade: B for inside linebackers, C- for outside ’backers
After struggling early in the year – that’s especially true for cornerback Ike Taylor -- the defensive backs got their act in order. The DBs don’t intercept enough passes, but overall, they were the strength of the defense. Imagine how much better they would have fared if strong safety Troy Polamalu didn’t miss nine games and Taylor the last four.
The Steelers’ ranked first in pass defense by allowing only 185 passing yards per game. They also led the league in fewest yards per attempt (6.0). That was accomplished even though they tied for 15th with 37 sacks.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis was the team’s MIP this year, as it Most Improved Player. And cornerback Cortez Allen, with two interceptions and three forced fumbles the past two weeks, showed that he has star potential.
Grade: B
This phase of the game was all over the place.
Shaun Suisham kicked well by making 28 of 31 field goal tries but missed a chip shot in the 13-10 loss to the Bengals two weeks ago. Of course, Greg Warrren’s snap on that botched kick was bad.
The Steelers ranked 11th in the league in covering punts, but the Ravens’ only TD in a 16-13 win in Pittsburgh was a 63-yard TD return by Jacoby Jones.
Penalties negated several game-changing punt returns, and Antonio Brown lost a fumble on a 22-yard punt return that could have clinched victory in Dallas.
Chris Rainey tied for seventh in the league with a 26.5 yard average on kickoff returns but really, he’s wasn’t that dynamic as a return specialist. He only had one return longer than 34 yards in the second half of the season (a 42-yarder at Baltimore.)
Twice this year, opponents successfully pulled off fake punts against the Steelers.
Grade: D
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau almost always puts his guys in position to make plays. Sure, it would have been nice to have more turnovers and sacks but the defense was still stout enough to finish No. 1 overall.
It’s hard to gauge the job Todd Haley did as offensive coordinator. After a win over the Chiefs on Nov. 12, the Steelers were 6-3 and riding a four-game winning streak with their dink and dunk offense. But after Roethlisberger got hurt in that win over Kansas City, the Steelers went 2-5. Haley had to deal with injuries at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and on the offensive line.
Amos Jones certainly didn’t do anything to prove he deserved the promotion from assistant special teams coach to special teams coordinator.
And as for Mike Tomlin, he certainly delivered the worst performance of his six-year reign. From the firing of special teams coach Al Everest in training camp, to benching his running backs one-by-one in that fumble-fest in Cleveland to not trying for a two-point conversion in the loss to San Diego, Tomlin obviously contributed to the 8-8 mess.
Grades: A for LeBeau, C for Haley, C- for Jones and D for Tomlin