Pittsburgh Steelers: Some Burning Questions from the Early Offseason
With the Pittsburgh Steelers currently over the allotted salary cap for the upcoming 2012 NFL season, which seems eons away in early February, one key word overviews the singular certainty that will define the franchise's offseason blueprint:
Some familiar faces will stay; some, with absolute certainty, will go.
Effective philosophies will stay intact; those with questionable merit will be re-evaluated.
Young players will be expected to step up; aging veterans will have to step down.
Certainly, some of the steps that will be taken this summer, all geared toward building the champions of tomorrow, will cause some discomfort today. Thankfully, there is an absolute truism about the Black and Gold that has stood the test of time through decades of play...
The team brass has always found a way to prepare for the long-term future, consistently fulfilling the hopes of fans by replenishing the talent pool and fielding a consistent winner, practically every season. In fact, the Men of Steel have only suffered through seven losing seasons since the "Immaculate Reception."
Um, yeah... that was nearly 40 years ago! There are plenty of teams who have suffered more losing seasons in the past dozen years than the pride of the Rooney family has in almost four decades.
With a number of key decisions ahead, here are some burning questions from the early offseason. Hopefully, the norm reigns supreme, and the Steelers make the right moves toward contending for another Lombardi Trophy for years to come!
What Direction Is the Offense Heading In, and How Does That Affect Big Ben?
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Ben Roethlisberger has made his perspective on recent events—including the "retirement" of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians—very clear. Much to his surprise and possible chagrin, though he has not used that terminology, he will be working with a new O-coordinator for the first time since Ken Whisenhunt left Pittsburgh, PA to create semi-half-decent-to-great-at-least-initially-and-perhaps-beyond-but-probably-not-since-Kurt-Warner-retired-two-years-ago Pittsburgh, AZ.
Who can blame the team, provided that the decision was not exclusively the choice of Arians, for desiring a new direction? With so much talent on the field and a franchise quarterback at the helm, there was never any excuse for never eclipsing a rank of 14th in red-zone touchdown efficiency. Further, finishing 21st in the NFL with 20.5 points per game was unacceptable for a team whose talents should correlate with a better outcome.
Over the last few days, the team has seen Jim Caldwell and Todd Haley, both of whom are connected to offenses that feature(d) great quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner, and the passing game as a primary form of attack. Strange choices for a team that wants to go run heavy, so all of thus phobic of an offense approach resembling the late 70's can reeee-lax!
Art Rooney II mentioned he wanted Big Ben to "tweak" his play, while also mildly suggesting offensive change was necessary. With the notion of the Steelers' "old style" of play circling through the social networks, many panicked:
"But, our team is build around the quarterback! And, with such great receivers, we can't go running the ball on every down!"
To which one could easily respond, "Opposed to what? Passing 40 times along the whipping winds off of Lake Erie? Or against the Broncos, despite the quarterback's bum ankle and the primary back's seven yards per carry average?"
When the running game works, it cannot become the second option simply by philosophy, no matter the talent on the field or the vanity of the quarterback. This is not to suggest that the team should throwback their approach in an era of football obviously dominated by the air.
Clearly, considering the nature of the candidates being considered, the notion of going to a rudimentary single-back offense, absurd even in this intentional exaggeration, is not close to the direction being referenced.
First, a running game is very important, and it does need to improve drastically in Pittsburgh. Running sets up the pass AND vice versa, but never has the former been more evident that it was in 2011. The Steelers best running effort with Roethlisberger at the helm came against the Titans; in that game, No. 7 finished with five passing touchdowns.
Play action is a bee-yotch to defend!
Further, as Big Ben's play is concerned, it does need "tweaking," opposed to change. Due to his production, change would be foolhardy. Because of his recent injuries, not tweaking would be equally silly. The next coordinator will be tasked with this goal, make no mistake.
Ben's willingness to extend plays, never giving up even in the most dire situations, had yielded great results...much of the time. In fact, his ability to throw on the run to receivers that adjust their routes in accordance to his style is one of the single biggest factors in his bulky average yards per career pass attempt.
However, with Roethlisberger entering his prime and the Super Bowl window open right now (hopefully), his health is vital to the team's ability to earn a seventh Lombardi Trophy. The ability to focus on a more rhythmic approach to the passing game, without entirely foregoing his playmaking outside of the pocket, will only help Ben to have a healthier, longer and more productive career.
Otherwise, in a future that sees him being stubbornly unwilling to resign to the next down or the check down, Ben's ankle hasn't seen its last twist.
Which Offensive Skill Players Will See 2012 in Black and Gold?
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Nobody wants Hines Ward to retire. Yet, with all sentimentality aside, it's as simple as "less money or good-bye." In the case of the ever loyal No. 86, the numbers simply do not lie. In football terms, "that old man, he ain't what he used to be."
Nevertheless, nobody will refute that the well-rounded Ward can still make the key catch when it matters, and his influence on younger players certainly aided in the record-breaking pace of Mike Wallace to start the season and the MVP year of Antonio Brown.
If the price is right, Ward will almost certainly return.
Jericho Cotchery could have a great deal of influence on Ward's future with the team. For my money, Cotchery is certainly the better option for immediate results production-wise in 2012.
Beyond the receivers, there are other key considerations ahead.
Isaac Redman, formerly thought of as a great power back and short yardage option, showcased a lot of "sizzle," running with authority during his start against the Broncos. With Rashard Mendenhall's ACL injury, the Steelers starting runner could potentially miss time to start the season, and there is no guarantee of how his performance will be affected by the setback.
Will the team utilize Redman as a full-time starter?
Likewise, Mewelde Moore was always a great change of pace back, able to make huge plays in the passing game at key moments. His shiftiness also has made him a unique threat out of the backfield, both running and pass catching.
Baron Batch, who many view as Moore 2.0, was considered by many as a talent that threatened Moore's roster spot prior to 2011. With his return to health next season, will Batch overtake Moore on the depth chart? And, if so, what type of role can he fulfill on offense? Most seem to feel strongly that the sky is the limit for the rookie who never got the chance to display his talents.
How Can the Offensive Line Be Fixed?
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Nobody confuses the Steelers offensive line among the great fronts in the game. Some underrate them, as the unit has managed to put together solid efforts in the past couple of seasons, despite trying circumstances and injuries.
Still, being apathetic about the O-line simply on the basis of their "getting by" for the "most part" is not the Steelers way. The Steelers way is about getting back to a more consistent running game (not a run-first offense, though!) and establishing a much more solvent, if not dominant, group of hogs.
The Black and Gold cannot settle for "good enough" in this regard. It's time to spruce things up in front of Big Ben and the offense.
Nobody questions the ability of Maurkice Pouncey at center, and Marcus Gilbert is clearly destined to fulfill one of the tackle spots.
However, with Starks having injured his ACL (is that a theme, or what?!) and Colon entering the list of the injury-prone, the team would be wise to consider focusing their energies on a "BAP" (best available players) effort at the position, if not a full-scale perusal into the free-agent market.
Additionally, while the team has proven its flexibility upfront—featuring players that can fill multiple voids (guard/center, guard/tackle, etc.), focusing on acquiring a solid tackle couldn't hurt the cause either.
Too much youth upfront is a surefire risk, so my hope is that the team will use a free agency and drafting approach toward upgrading the offensive front. Bringing in a solid veteran, ala Max Starks' infusion into the lineup in 2011, will help the unit to gel, while obtaining a rookie with a nice upside show initiative for the future—and at less cost, which is very important in this offseason.
With respect to the reserves who are borderline starters, Ramon Foster can back up both guard positions, and Doug Legursky should remain the backup at center.
As for Chris Kemoeatu, who displayed more brood than brains or brawn in 2011, I'd be stunned to see a return to the team in 2012.
What Current Steelers Want to Step Up as a Starter on Defense?
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With his declining performance, Bryant McFadden is as good as gone. Mark it down, though I don't see any risk in the statement.
In his expected place, Willie "Big Play" Gay, as nicknamed by Mike Tomlin in the public ear, started opposite of Ike Taylor at cornerback.
Gay came up with some huge plays during the season, most notable a key interception to thwart the game-tying drive of Andy Dalton and secure a win over the Bengals.
That play was vital if only because the Steelers had lost to the Ravens one week earlier. During that Monday night, as Torrey Smith got open in the end zone for a touchdown pass from Joe Flacco with seconds left, fans were left to ask, "what happened?"
Sure, the safety support wasn't stellar.
Yet, with the end zone as the soft spot for your enemy to focus, how could Gay allow Smith to get so open behind him?
This, among many other plays, demonstrates the issues that many have with the play of Gay, who is certainly questionable, at best, as a solidified starter in the Pittsburgh secondary.
Gay may be a serviceable nickel and dime candidate, but if the Steelers truly want to have a supreme defensive backfield, Gay must be replaced in the starting tandem.
Could 2011 rookies Cortez Allen or Curtis Brown make a play at the job?
Or will Keenan Lewis, a popular pick of many to have future impact as a starter on defense, continue the growth and progress shown in appearances this past season?
Corner isn't the only defensive position that needs addressing. Aaron Smith fell to injury again, and Brett Keisel did the same (groin). Likewise, the "Diesel" certainly isn't a low-mileage vehicle at this point.
Can Cameron Heyward impress in camp and fulfill the promise that comes with top draft billing in the Pittsburgh defensive circuit?
More Defensive Housekeeping: What About Linebackers, Pressures and Turnovers?
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The defense forced more turnovers as 2011 progressed, and their complete shutout in the statistical category was a clear statistical outlier. Nevertheless, the unit didn't live up to their expectations in causing the opposition to miscue; likewise, the defense failed to sustain the level of pressure often seen by the Black and Gold.
So, what can they do to address these issues and avoid an encore performance?
Keep in mind, as it concerns getting pressure and forcing turnovers, the ability of linebackers to find avenues into the offensive backfield in the 3-4 system is vital. As such, this requires great backers, but it equally requires focusing on keeping a dominant defensive front (tackle and ends).
Also, turnovers and pressures tend to go hand in hand. Fixing one helps to fix the other, and the order is simple: If you get enough pressure, the giveaways are going to happen!
First and foremost, I think the key is to not overreact. The Steelers may be aging, but the team has always done a solid job of replacing veterans at the appropriate time.
Secondly, it is important to note the franchise's fine history of finding and properly molding the finest linebackers. Expect this wonderful and seemingly natural infusion to continue.
Pittsburgh, to use a collegiate term, ought as well be referred to as "Linebacker U," like Penn State. The team always finds a way to replenish this area of the roster to an almost uncanny degree.
So, while rumor has it that James Farrior's return is questionable, along with Larry Foote, and despite considering that James Harrison got a late start into his prime, fans should not panic with the team's ability to sustain quality at the linebacker position.
The return (and hopeful sustenance) of a healthy LaMarr Woodley, who savagely attacked the backfield during his peak in 2011, will help to amplify defensive pressure. This, in turn, will assist with increasing turnover production.
Timmons is peaking. Worilds and Sylvester are developing. And the team has an amazing eagle eye for linebacker talent at any given time of the draft.
Every few offseasons, fans go into linebacker panic mode. Every time, the team comes through with flying colors.
Lastly, occasionally keeping a safety in coverage doesn't hurt with containing the opposing quarterback, either. (Kidding!)
Should the Steelers Draft a Nose Tackle in the First Round?
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Yes, they should. Bet your bottom dollar on it, too!
With Dick LeBeau returning and Keith Butler committing to the Black and Gold—which shows so much loyalty that one should think integrity alone assures him as LeBeau's successor—the team is clearly comfortable in maintaining its defensive scheme.
The 3-4 is a wonderful defensive strategy. Yet, it requires key parts.
And make no mistake about it that no part is as important as the nose tackle. Any contrary beliefs are misguided and futile. Just look around the league. Likewise, examine the Steelers defensive production against the career of Hampton.
Unlike the 4-3 alignment, which sees four down linemen and two tackles lined up to either side of center, the 3-4 utilizes a singular tackle at its core. While the strategy allows flexibility with the looks seen upfront, it absolutely requires dominant play from the isolated tackle, or nose tackle.
Plain and simple. It's just that open and closed. Period.
The nose tackle often gets lost in the mass of the trenches, not showing up on the highlight reel with the sacks seen by dominant ends. Yet, in the chaos along the line of scrimmage, the beef in the middle of the 3-4 defense dictates how much liberty and space those defenders working behind the front have to penetrate and/or control the line of scrimmage.
It's not difficult conceptually: one guy with so much responsibility needs to be beefy.
Haloti Ngata, Vince Wolfork, Jay Ratliff, Kris Jenkins.
Need the list continue? Fine, here's another: Casey Hampton, in his prime.
Sadly, Hampton is no longer in that dominant stage of his career. The Steelers allowed opposing runners more yards per attempt and finished with few sacks than they had experienced in years.
Equally unfortunate, Chris Hoke has retired, and Casey Hampton's ACL injury threatens the Steelers' stability in the middle of the line.
With the future of the defense philosophically established, a young stud tackle is a must.
While McClendon showed flashes of ability, can he dominate?
Expect a tackle to be drafted first, which could see Memphis's Donatari Poe (or the best available tackle) wearing the famous Black and Gold.
Poe, Heyward and Ziggy Hood.
By that token of potential measurement, the defensive front's future seems fairly bright in the Steel City.