2012 Pittsburgh Steelers: 10 Key Improvements for a Super Bowl XLVII Victory
Today's Pittsburgh Steelers are a collection of championship-caliber athletes, many having already hoisted the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy more than once.
Steelers Country has been blessed with a vast sum of competitive riches, including but not limited to eight Lamar Hunt Trophies, a football factory full of Hall of Famers and six Super Bowl Championships.
One thing is true about Six-burgh: We are a spoiled bunch. And we could care less.
Forget those snake-bitten franchises who have yet to even experience a Super Sunday. Likewise, fans of the Steelers should not feel melancholy for any of the other NFL teams who have climbed that summit, even if only once. Pittsburgh peeps know how sweet it would be for the 'Burgh to boast seven "sticky Lombardis" before any other franchise earns its sixth.
Spoiled or not, the stance of the Steelers fan towards even the most hard luck franchise is "NO MERCY."
To illustrate the hopes and dreams of every Steelers fan heading toward the 2012 NFL season, I have written the following haiku trio to tell the story:
The colors Black and Gold
Dominate the new season.
Lombardi's raised high!
Terrible Towels twirl
While the Steelers celebrate.
Cry, Tom Brady, cry!
Men of Steel stand tall
And party in New Orleans.
Pittsburgh pride is high!
Despite the most ambitious wishes of every hopeful football fan in the Steel City, the reality is that championships are not born from mere thoughts, prayers and rampant fanaticism. A lot of hard work is required, and any realist knows that the team needs to improve to have a realistic shot at "Seventh Heaven."
A new offense must be learned, defensive standouts must be replaced and rookies need to learn the ropes, among other things.
If 2011 offered anything, in spite of its disappointing ending at Invesco Field, it was a solid reminder that improvements must be made on the path to Super Bowl XLVII.
Here are the 10 key areas for progress to help ensure a fabulous February in the Steel City.
Facilitate the Continued Emergence of the Punt Returner... Even If It's A.B.!
Many do not want him injured. Others feel the rate of success that Pittsburgh has had on the recent punt return can be continued with another roster member, i.e. Chris Rainey.
If he can indeed fill into the shoes of Brown, one of the league's most dynamic return specialists, then the decision makes perfect sense.
However, there is more to the punt return than blazing speed and potential. There is trajectory, judgment, courage amidst a wave of ruthless aggressors, split-second decision making, ball control, sure-handedness, and vision amidst the hodge-podge of blocks and missed blocks that are "special teams."
Being a burner is no sure thing. And, Steelers fans should know the rarity of a capable returner, sinner a phenom, if anyone should...
Repeat: if someone can fill the role as well, so be it. If not, Brown should return punts based on his proven pedigree. Fear of injuries should not dictate team roles; ability should determine those roles.
Personally, I find it quite surprising, given the team's spotty history on special teams (including returns) that many are standoffish about the possibility of a return by Brown to this role.
Not surprisingly, A.B. does not just stand for Antonio Brown. Another fitting translation is Automatic Blastoff. Or Absolute Beast.
And, if he continues to develop as a dynamic return specialist, A.B. will also stand for “AFC’s Best!" Already, he's among the best returners in the conference and NFL as a whole.
I realize the team has other viable options in the return game, but Brown ranked among the top returners last season, and he only began to chip at the tip of the iceberg for his potential on special teams.
Brown was averaging 12.2 yards per punt return (ranked second in the AFC).
Heading into the home game against Cincinnati, fans anxiously hoped his high rate of return would translate into six points. In that game, Brown's 60-yard touchdown return up the right sideline broke the backs of the Bengals.
Fans at Heinz Field recalled his return as the deciding moment of the game, the play that put momentum completely into the Steelers’ favor to stay and dispirited the overmatched “Bungles.”
While some likely question the notion of such a valuable offensive weapon playing special teams, the team needs to continue this role unless they are SURE a more suitable replacement exists following preseason. Few plays are more demoralizing than the special teams touchdown, and Brown has the potential to turn his single touchdowns into multiple scores.
And... fair warning: even fewer things are more demoralizing than the game-costing fumble, the inability of a player to make up his mind for a return or safe play pinned deep, or an athlete with great top-end speed who has no vision in the ever-so hostile NFL return game.
If Brown can turn it up one more gear, the Steelers could boast the most dangerous return game in the AFC, adding another dimension to a team that already dominates on defense and whose speed scares the dickens out of defenders on offense.
If Sanders or Rainey can match or exceed this production, they should be called upon to do so.
Otherwise, compromising a clear team strength could prove costly.
Rediscover Dominance at Nose Tackle
For the first time in many seasons, the Steelers defense allowed four yards per opponent rush attempt in 2011, an alarmingly high rate of return surrendered to backs by the proud Black and Gold front line.
The Steelers led the NFL with a 3.4 yards per run allowed from 2008-2010, including an anemic 3.0 yard average given up in that ’08 championship campaign.
In that same stretch, the Steelers allowed only 11 runs of over 20 yards. Over the course of 54 games in that time frame, that is only one long burst surrendered every five games.
Conversely, last year, the team was allowing as high as 4.5 yards per carry headed into a key match with the New England Patriots in late October.
In the season’s first seven games, the unit gave up five 20-plus yard runs.
And, in the opening four games, the team allowed two 100-plus rushing performances; no two backs had run for 100 yards in a four-game span against the league’s stingiest run defense since 2003.
Health was certainly a key factor that allowed the average to balloon from previous dominance. Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and James Harrison were among those names out of the lineup throughout 2011.
However, Keisel “the Diesel” has always filled in admirably for Smith, an all-time great containment end and run-stuffer. And, even before substantial injuries plagued the unit, the team struggled in run containment from the get-go, chop blocked to h-e-double hockey sticks in Baltimore when the injury report only included Marcus Gilbert and Jericho Cotchery.
In reality, an effective 3-4 defense, particularly in run containment, starts with dominance from the nose tackle position. Isolated in the middle, the NT of the Steelers defense is the keystone piece, anchoring the run defense and commanding blockers that allow linebackers and fellow defensemen to flourish in the pass-rush.
The great nose tackles in the game are dominating behemoths because they have to be for the defensive front to do its job: Haloti Ngata, Casey Hampton…
Well, maybe not Hampton anymore. Unlike past seasons, Hampton found himself out-leveraged at the line of scrimmage more than ever last season, a clear step back from his normal performance.
Now, as “Big Snack” recovers from a bigger injury (ACL tear), his future as a starter is uncertain. His backup, Steven McClendon, does not inspire a great deal of faith from locals as a long-time prospect. And, Alameda Ta’ Amu was an undeniable draft steal, but the team certainly isn’t quite ready to immediately relinquish the middle of the defensive front to a rookie with so much to learn at the professional level.
Nevertheless, one of these men will line up opening night in Denver, and it will be his job to solidify his spot by getting the job done with more effectiveness than was demonstrated last year.
That will be the first key step in assuring the run defense rediscovers its previous swagger.
Offseason calamity was not a staple of the Rooney-owned Steelers until recently. Now, it seems like the franchise can't escape the firestorm of an NFL summer.
Two seasons ago, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for what could be most appropriately described as misconduct.
In the same timeframe, receiver Santonio Holmes was released for behavior deemed detrimental to the team.
Opinions varied greatly regarding the infamous "guns blazing" article, in which an interviewed James Harrison had bullets ready to fire from his arms (the metal kind) and his mouth.
Mix in some politically and religiously motivated commentary from Rashard Mendenhall, and the always active resentment by the team toward the league office for rules that inhibit the defense's style of play, and the 'Burgh football scene has been quite the central hub for buzz-worthy news, whether football is being played or not.
The Steelers had continued success in spite of their notorious limelight, including a Super Bowl run; nevertheless, the less distracted the team is heading into the new campaign, the more focused they will be on the end goal of New Orleans.
Compared to the previous circus of summer activity, Big Ben's "Rosetta stone" comments regarding the new offensive system certainly seem like small potatoes. Added onto that is Mike Wallace's threat to holdout for an unspecified period of time, leaving the Steelers at least temporarily without one of their most dangerous weapons.
Comparatively, these past few months have been relatively subdued in Steeltown.
With so many key new faces, the loss of experienced veterans and mass-scale changes, not limited to the Todd Haley offense, it is important for the team to be able to focus on their discipline (football) instead of Goodell's discipline (suspensions, fines, etc.).
Only a few inconsequential nuggets have revealed themselves. Unlike other recent offseasons, the Steelers need to keep it that way this time.
Improving the Running Game, but Still Using Honest End-of-Game Clock Control
Running out the clock has gotten outdated and outmoded, particularly for teams that need clearly need to work on their rushing attack.
At the end of games, the Steelers need to use their strengths in securing a win above all else.
This is not to say that the team should not focus on keeping that seven yards per carry average from both of their final two games last season going...
In recent seasons, the Steelers have struggled to run the football with any consistency. Because the NFL is rapidly evolving into a primary passing league (understatement much?), the team has avoided what would be much more severe scrutiny for the deficiency.
After all, how tolerable would a community be with the team's running game, barring a few exceptional contests intermittently, for a franchise that has more often than not been associated with churning out first downs and securing wins?
At best, the rushing "attack" has been hit or (mostly) miss.
In reality, today's NFL team does not require a profound running back for success. In the last three seasons, the league-leading rusher has missed the playoffs.
Last season, arguably the game's two best backs (Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew) missed the playoffs.
Most winning squads run by committee, and championship teams are able to pass with a willingness to establish the run.
In other words, not abandoning the run is a key to victory. Still, it helps when those shots on the ground yield positive yards, and the more, the better!
Additionally, while the game is transitioning away from big rushing numbers equating to victory, AND despite the fact I advise against it above, running effectively is still a key fundamental skill that can help teams shave off those final seconds! But, it only works when the clinching first down is had.
Otherwise, odds say to go for it through the air, those extra 30-odd seconds or opponent timeout be damned!
Twice in the past two seasons, the Steelers have held the football with an opportunity to run out the clock, only to hand the pigskin back to Joe Flacco for the impending Baltimore victory.
In both circumstances, a desire to ground and pound for clock-killing first downs failed the team when they would have otherwise won.
Improving in the running game is key, but moreover, the team needs to be honest about end-of-game, victory-securing clock control.
At the end of the day, despite the risk of stopping the clock with an incomplete pass, it is much better to throw the football in an effort to end the game than to do the traditionally wise thing—run the ball—if it isn't going to work.
Today's NFL rewards those teams who are honest about the best game-ending approach, and the Steelers, albeit needing to improve on the run and absolutely needing to establish the run, need not force the issue to end games just because the unspoken book of football truths commands it.
Using Speed out of the Backfield
When fast Willie Parker exploded onto the Pittsburgh football scene in late '04 and throughout the championship 2005 season, he added a dynamic new speed element to the Steelers offense. In the running game, an inch of daylight could turn into a field of dreams for Parker in an instant.
Everyone remembers his explosive record-breaking run in Super Bowl XL, a 75-yard jaunt through superb blocking, outracing the Seattle secondary to the end zone in a chase that ultimately wasn't remotely close. Likewise, we can all vividly recall Bettis's response, shown during the Super Bowl highlight film, in which the back succinctly states, "speed kills."
Parker had one weakness that would have served as a supreme strength for the Steelers: bad hands. In the '09 AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, a perfectly placed pass hit off of his shoulder pads that would have certainly ended as a touchdown reception. Thankfully, nobody has had to look back on the play with regret.
Now, the Steelers have two blisteringly fast backs on the roster, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey. The Florida alum comes with a great deal of anticipation, and Batch has been a fan favorite since before his unfortunate injury last season.
While the team has utilized Mewelde Moore out of the backfield in the passing game, he certainly does not possess the sheer speed of either of his peers.
The Steelers need to utilize their weapon(s), pending the final roster decisions and retained running backs, much in the same way the Ravens have frustrated the 'Burgh with the playmaking of Ray Rice.
Steelers Country nearly regurgitates when it hears the phrase "bubble screen," an element of the Bruce Arians offense that was used to tireless repetition. While hopes for an explosive play increase with fast receivers, the strategy grew moot due to predictability. On the bubble screen, an anticipating corner can blow up the play for a loss.
Tradition screens, while they run the same risk, can vary in their timing and setup, and the ability to properly establish and block these plays can become one of the most devastating elements of an offensive arsenal.
For years, the Packers and Steelers were the two best teams in football at running timely screen plays.
The ability to set up the screen pass to either of the two fast backs exemplifies the phrase "giving an inch and taking a mile."
Moreover, however, Rainey and Batch have demonstrated in their football years the ability to consistently catch passes with their hands (the correct method, opposed to the arms or chest) and make plays in the passing game.
While this assists them with traditional screen plays, it also makes them viable receiving targets in any number of formations, including the spread offense.
This not only makes it easier for the Steelers to disguise their intentions and formations in the huddle and pre-snap (sending a back into motion), but it gives the team another viable playmaking threat that can be utilized on any number of passing plays and downs.
The luxury of a dual threat fast back is a deadly threat that the team cannot afford not to utilize!
Increasing Pressures and Turnovers
They go together like peanut butter and jelly, Batman and Robin, Laverne and Shirley and cereal and milk.
Pressure and turnovers go hand-in-hand. If you get a team, or quarterback, flustered, mistakes will happen. His entire game can be impacted, including his accuracy, comfort, anticipation and decision-making.
Last season, the Steelers did not get as much sustained pressure on the quarterback, especially during the absence of Lamarr Woodley, and this certainly contributed to fewer turnovers.
Likewise, another contributing factor to the declining stats and hurries was the performance dropoff of the defensive front, no matter how slight.
However, the decrease in takeaways in 2011, particularly early in the season (the team did not force a turnover until late in their third game), was not just a matter of pressures.
The San Francisco 49ers led the league with 1.9 forced fumbles per game. Conversely, the Steelers finished third from the bottom in the category, stripping the opposition only 0.9 times per contest.
The Steelers can certainly focus on aggressiveness for the football as an area of improvement.
Likewise, timing is everything. One fraction of a second is all the difference in the world.
For example, while Troy Polamalu had a fabulous season, the final statistics were only a microcosm of what his end result could have been.
How many times did he so narrowly miss diving on a loose ball, getting his hands on an errant pass and dislodging the pigskin as he torpedoed in the backfield?
Admittedly, part of the puzzle is just being in the right place at the right time. The Steelers defense needs to focus on improving that which they can control.
If the defence can handle their business in the trenches, consistently make their presence felt in the offensive backfield and take advantage when opportunities present themselves (all of which have been staples of the unit for many years), their turnover margin will dramatically improve in 2012.
Improved Red-Zone Touchdown Efficiency
In terms of yardage, the Steelers offense ranked 12th in the NFL during the 2011 regular season. However, scoring was a weakness for the Men of Steel, who finished 21st in total points scored (20.3 pts/gm), ranking below some of the worst offenses in the game.
Pittsburgh scored fewer points than all three teams below them in total offense, as well as the 18th-ranked Vikings, 20th-ranked Bengals and even the teams finishing in 24th through 26th place (Bears, Jets and 49ers, respectively).
The Steelers were highly inefficient on the scoreboard, a quality that is unacceptable with consideration to the cornucopia of talent featured and the franchise quarterback running the show.
The team's success in the red zone was the biggest factor in the unacceptable points:yardage ratio, and that same low touchdown percentage inside the 20-yard line facilitated change at the offensive coordinator spot.
Enter Todd Haley, a coordinator who has effectively built offenses around the surround talent ranging from aerial circuses to ground game gurus.
And considering Haley's instrumental role in the resurrection of Kurt Warner, one can't help but be curious about the relationship and on-field outcome he will have with Ben Roethlisberger, a different breed of quarterback in the prime of his career.
Certainly, red-zone improvement must be a priority for a team that spent far too much time biting its collective nails during 13-9 games against the dregs of the league.
The team has failed to properly utilize its resources in the red zone; tight end Heath Miller and Wesley Saunders, who showcased his pass-catching skills at Arrowhead Stadium last season, are drastically underutilized nearing the goal line.
Many factors could assist in the goal of scoring on a short field. Improved playcalling, tight end involvement, success on first down, capable running and many other key assets must serve as resources for turning field goals and breakdowns into achieved goals and touchdowns.
Make Potential Match Credentials on the Offensive Line
The offensive line needs to get better. It's the almighty Pittsburgh soundtrack that serves as more of a broken record than an entertaining respite.
With a lack of health and a bit of moderate (at best) talent in spots, the Steelers offensive line has been a patchwork production in recent seasons.
Every new year, fans have predicted the upcoming campaign as finally "being the season" when the offensive line can build chemistry and work fluidly.
So far, those aspirations have fallen short. The team has relied on the flexibility of their linemen to account for an ever-changing unit.
In the draft, at long last, the Steelers focused primarily on the offensive line and targeted players with distinct specialty positions.
Mike Adams is a tackle.
David Decastro is a guard.
And, with any luck, they'll do what they do as advertised! The value of both selections was premium, each being chosen well below their projected draft position. In effect, the Steelers were able to (hopefully) buoy the line with the equivalent of a high and mid-range set of first round talents!
They will join former draft selections Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert on one of the youngest—and supremely talented—group of hogs.
If any team is due for decent health in the trenches, it is Pittsburgh.
As such, can this be the season that POTENTIAL finally meets CREDENTIALS?
Making a Solid Decision Regarding the 'Other' Corner
Despite a maligned showing in Denver, Ike Taylor was a reliable force at the corner position for the league's best pass defense of the 2011 regular season.
Headed into 2012, Taylor will continue to give the defense a great luxury and safety net, even on an island against the NFL's best receivers.
League-wide, Ike may be one of the most underrated defensive players in the NFL today.
Opinions were mixed regarding Willie Gay. Many considered him a mere viable backup, while others considered him a capable second cornerback.
With a clutch interception one moment and a key touchdown surrendered the next, speaking out for or against Gay was a roller coaster ride for many in the Steel City.
Personally, I always questioned the decision of having "Big Play" Willie Gay as a starter on the defense, though youth and inexperience certainly limited options last year.
With Gay's departure, the team has a critical decision to make.
The odds-on favorite to win the job opposite Ike is Keenan Lewis, through Cortez Allen will likely get some play for the position during training camp, and perhaps the preseason.
Lewis has experience, having come on nickel sub-packages last season while Gay would move to the nickel back spot.
The pedigree of the new starting corner will have a great degree of dictation as to whether the Steelers 2012 defense is good, very good, great, excellent or... dare I say...
Staying Healthy...Particularly at Quarterback
Unfortunately, this is the one key improvement area that is mostly dictated by chance. As such, the team cannot necessarily "improve" in this regard so much as hope for a better outcome.
Conditioning is essential, as well as awareness on the field, to avoid injuries. Certainly, the football gods can afford to bestow a bit of good fortune on this injury-plagued unit. Could 2012 be that time?
One particular player absolutely has more control over his injuries than others, at least the unnecessary ones.
While nobody wants to change Ben Roethlisberger's style of play, which includes the type of timely risk-taking that normally leads the Steelers to monumental wins, Art Rooney surely made his point clear when he mentioned his desire for Big Ben to "tweak" his game.
While he desires to turn lemons into lemonade, even against all odds, there is another phrase that Roethlisberger may want to implement into his philosophy: live to fight another day.
One need look no further than his ankle injury against the Browns, almost assuredly the single biggest damning factor to the team's 2011 season, to discover the room for improvement. With an opportunity to throw the football away, a determined Roethlisberger's "never-say-die" attitude ended up costing him.
When considering his value as an elite franchise quarterback, it is easy to determine that Ben has to take his health more into his own hands, and he needs to use this as a motivator when deciding how to "tweak" his play.
This is a listing of various reasons in favor of "tweaking," so let's get the most obvious motive out of the way: prolonging his season...and his career!
These field generals don't come around often, not even in every draft, and finding a gifted quarterback who can lead your team to success over the course of a decade—sinner longer—is a blessing.
Count the number of teams in the NFL who have the same starting quarterback they fielded in September 2004—the month Ben took the helm behind center in Steeltown. Keep in mind that Philip Rivers was backing up Drew Brees, while Eli Manning was a reserve for Kurt Warner until late in the season. Do you have your answer?
One. The New England Patriots and Tom Brady, who himself missed, essentially, the entire 2008 season. And that had nothing to do with his decision-making.
In a league where injuries are already hard enough to avoid, self-inflicted wounds must be avoided.
Many signal-callers have talked about reaching the peak of their intelligence for the game in their 30's, regretful that their bodies no longer had the maximum potential lost in their late 20's.
In other words, the strong, rugged Ben Roethlisberger has a physical advantage many of his peers didn't have, but the number of hits he has taken could have already counteracted this blessing.
It only takes one devastating injury to destroy a career, and the culmination of multiple career contusions and concussions doesn't help.
If Roethlisberger wants to be an active player when Super Bowl L goes down, the avoidable rigors have to be thwarted. The expected wear and tear on an NFL quarterback is more than enough.
Getting the ball out more quickly and reserving the need to prolong plays will keep defenses at bay, minimize unnecessary hits and reduce the risk of long-term (or career-ending) injuries.
Fans will never know the injury prevented by a throwaway, but they'll certainly remember any encore of last year's brutal ankle injury, or worse!