This will be a four part series of things to look for in the final weeks of the 2009 Steelers' preseason. This series will look at remaining position battles, injury updates and prognoses, play calling and coaching, and will preview the season prior to the Sept. 10 opener against the Tennessee Titans.
The Steelers have played two preseason games thus far, winning at home in the Super Bowl rematch against the Cardinals and dropping the game at FexEx Field against the Redskins last Saturday. While the road for the seventh Super Bowl title is well under way, the Steelers have several questions that need answers soon. Some of those answers are:
Coaching and Play calling
Mike Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl last season. However, unlike the last Super Bowl win, Tomlin will not let this team rest on their laurels and get content. While the team returns 20 of 22 starters, there are a few questions that need answering, mostly on offense.
Defense: The defense led by future Hall of Famer and current defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, returns nine of the eleven starters from the Super Bowl XLIII team for 2009.
However, at a closer look, the two departed players, CB Bryant McFadden (gone to Arizona as a free agent) and LB Larry Foote (gone to Detroit after being released in the spring) will not be missed as much.
William Gay filled in well and held his own while McFadden spent what seemed to be his annual time on the injury report. Even after McFadden came back, Gay and McFadden split time on the field, with Gay coming in every third defensive series.
Obviously the Steelers found McFadden to be expendable (his injury history had to raise a few flags too) and Gay will enter his contract year as the starter.
Larry Foote has been a dependable starter for the Steelers since 2004. However, with 2007 first round pick Lawrence Timmons showing flashes of brilliance and uncanny athletic ability last season, Foote knew his days as a starter in Pittsburgh were numbered.
With Foote now in Detroit, Timmons will be the starter alongside inside linebacker James Farrior and will also be used as an outside rusher on third downs. Timmons, 23 years old, has the makings of the next great Steelers linebacker.
The defensive coaching is probably the best in the league. Linebacker coach Keith Butler and defensive line coach John Mitchell both could be defensive coordinators for nearly any other teams in the league. I think Butler could become the heir apparent to the Steelers' defensive coordinator position whenever LeBeau decides to retire, which I hope is not anytime soon.
What makes the Steelers defense even more amazining is that the Steelers field only three first round picks (Casey Hampton in 2001, Troy Polamalu in 2003, and Timmons in 2007. Farrior was a Jets' first rounder in 1997), one second round pick (LaMarr Woodley in 2007), and the rest of the starters being late round picks or undrafted free agents (James Harrison being the most prominent).
LeBeau's schemes have revolutionized the game, causing mass confusion with blitz looks pre-snap and sending any combination of four rushers to the passer. Polamalu, the ultimate wild card, can take over games with his coverage skills, he had seven interceptions last season, and his play near the line of scrimmage is good as well.
If I had to criticize the defense for anything, it is that I wish cornerback Ike Taylor would intercept the ball more whenever a quarterback throws his way. Other than that, I along with many in the Steeler Nation have little to complain about LeBeau's players and schemes.
Offense: The offense last season, at times, was just horrible. The play calling and the personnel moves were questionable. It makes many wonder why does QB Ben Roethlisberger do so much better when he is running the hurry-up no-huddle. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians not calling the plays is a good reason why.
The Steelers won the Super Bowl last season despite a less than average offensive line and horrible play calling by Arians. I have never been a fan of Arians and probably never will, but he is not giving me much to cheer about. While I do not want to see the Steelers go to the hurry up no-huddle full time, I like it much better when Arians is not involved.
Arians and OL coach Larry Zierlein both kept their jobs likely because of the Super Bowl win, but both need to be on the hot seat this year. I do miss former Hog and OL coach Russ Grimm and all that he brought to the team, but he has not been in Pittsburgh in two years.
Zierlein is more of a teacher than Grimm was and perhaps the Steelers' offensive linemen are better off with Zierlein. However, the number of sacks and hits allowed on Roethlisberger and the alarmingly bad short yardage rushing last season has to raise some eyebrows.
I realize Roethlisberger is the king of the scramble drill and he does hold onto the ball a long time, thus picking up unnecessary sacks, but at times the offensive line just looks overmatched. The Cardinals' Darnell Dockett, a good player but not the best defensive tackle in the league, looked like the next coming of Joe Greene in the Super Bowl, picking up three sacks. That is inexcusable.
Another quibble with the offensive line is the use of personnel. Why is Willie Colon still being used as a right tackle (RT) when he obviously is overmatched against many defensive ends? Colon should be used as right guard and new right guard (RG) Trai Essex should be moved to RT, which is his more natural position anyway.
At RG, Colon's short arms and lack of athleticism would be hidden and not exposed as much as it was at RT. At RG, I think Colon could be a potential Pro Bowl alternate and definitely a dependable starter. Also at RG, it is less likely that Colon will get called for illegal formation which he got called for countless times last season.
Back to Arians. One thing I saw this preseason that worries me is the abandoning of the running game when the first team is on the field. Why? This is preseason, where the records do not count. Why not work out the kinks of the running game, which disappeared at times last season?
I hope that against the Bills this Saturday, the first team offense attempts more runs than passes. We all know that Roethlisberger can get it done when needed, why not try to see what Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and the offensive line can do and not show the entire play book during preseason?
Special Teams: The special teams coverage last season was probably the best I have seen in about 20 years. While the punting was bad due to Daniel Sepulveda being on injured reserve (IR), Paul Ernster and Mitch Berger often kicked like they belonged on IR.
The kickoff coverage was also good, led by rookie Patrick Bailey and veteran Anthony Madison. I hope that both coverage units can have stellar years again and not give up any momentum breaking returns as they have done in years before.
The only real issue with the special teams last season was the lack of a threat to take it deep every time the defense forced a punt. Outside of Santonio Holmes' return against the Chargers in the AFC Divisional round, the Steelers did not have too many exciting returns.
This season, former Canadian Football League (CFL) return specialist Stefan Logan and rookie blazer Mike Wallace will be threats to take one to the house every time they go back to receive a kick or a punt. They both have the speed and moves, especially Logan.
I hope rookie Joe Burnett does not get a chance to do either after seeing him fumble three times on returns. All Burnett did was bring back memories of Ricardo Colclough, never a good move. Logan, with another solid game, might lock down a roster spot if he had not done so already.
Next time, the 53 man roster and the practice squad will be previewed.