As inept as Bruce Arians and his play calling has been this year, it is the defensive secondary that has likely put the final nail in the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers' coffin.
Once again a 4th quarter lead turned into a heart breaking loss. Late in the games the Steelers secondary has failed when teams spread them out and go pass heavy.
After the loss to the Oakland Raiders the Steelers record has dropped to 6-6, so where do they go from here?
First of all, the Steelers don't need to abandon all hopes for this season; they are still mathamatically alive for the playoffs. If the Steelers can win out they can make the playoffs.
The Ravens have to play the Steelers again—at Pittsburgh.
Although it may be unlikely that everything will fall the Steelers way, we learned in 2005 that it can and if you get hot at the right time "Super" things can happen.
Secondly, the Steelers have to make adjustments on offense. The biggest issue facing the Steelers offense is their red-zone performance. It's been horrible thus far this season; too many times the Steelers settle for a field goal or turn the ball over. In this area especially, the Steelers need to quit trying to outsmart other teams and pound it at them. The Steelers offensive line and running backs proved that they can have success against a good defense (Baltimore) as long as Bruce Arians stays committed to the run.
If you're going to pass in this situation, don't make it so obvious by using the empty backfield set. Using this formation lets the defense know that there is no chance that this play is a run, thus you're telling the defense what you're going to do and making the job easier for the defense.
Also, by not using this formation you protect your QB. Too often in this formation an un-blocked player has a kill shot on the QB, even if the QB gets the ball away.
If the Steelers would have performed better in the redzone this season they would have likely not lost these games in the last seconds. Although they still may have been too close for comfort.
Next, the Steelers have to get better play from the secondary. William Gay has played very poorly much of this season as has Ryan Clark.
Gay's play has regressed from last season; does that mean he is done? No, because if you remember Ike Taylor had to be benched once before also. After having a good season last year and being handed the starting job heading into this year, Gay's ego may have become inflated.
While Gay will be out for at least the next game at Cleveland, it may be in his best interest to be demoted even after he comes back. Hopefully he will refocus and play up to the potential that he showed last season.
Rookie Joe Burnett is likely to get the start this week and fellow rookie Keenan Lewis should see his most extensive playing time of the season also. This will be their opportnunity to show the coaches what they can do. If neither succeed in the starters role, look for Deshea Townsend to take over while the others get their chances in the nickle and dime packages.
But, if the Steelers are offically eliminated from the playoffs, look for these two rookies to get an extended look so that the Steelers can get a better feel for them and what they need to do during the offseason.
While Ryan Clark has become a fan favorite, he has showed this season that he can be taken advantage of. He is a hard hitting safety that is good in run support but has difficulty in pass coverage and playing the ball. Lee Flowers anyone?
Unlike the situation at cornerback, the Steelers don't have anyone with lots of upside waiting in the wings at safety.
Ryan Mundy is a young player with some upside, but likely not enough to become an impact player. So while he may get an extended look, I don't feel that Ryan Clark should be benched in favor of Mundy.
Ike Taylor is a player that I feel has been the target of many fans and I feel undeservingly so.
While not having his best season, he is still a well above average cornerback in a league that has made efforts to eliminate "shutdown corners" from existance.
And while not wanting to seem as if I am placing blame or defending a player, it was likely a miscommunication or blown coverage that led to Taylor being beaten for a long touchdown pass yesterday.
As the announcer explained during the game, Taylor was in an outside technique, thus giving the WR the middle of the field. I believe it's safe to assume that he wouldn't have used this technique had he not expected help on the inside.
Hopefully the Steelers can make these adjustments and make the playoffs, but if they can't here are my thoughts for the offseason.
While it's hard to judge the development of players, predict the signings of players, and who will be where in the draft, it is very easy to know that Bruce Arians is not the answer as offensive coordinator.
If you look at his body of work as a head coach in college and as a coordinator with the Steelers and Browns you can see that the same problems always exist.
Without going into too much detail (if you want the details see some of my prior articles) Arians should be relieved of his job duties as offensive coordinator.
During his tenure as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers they have been very inconsistant offensively overall, their redzone performance has been dismal, the playcalling has been predictable, the players talents have not been maximized, the offense is too often one diamentional, and the playcalling in critical situations has been horrible. (see 4th & 3 QB sweep call behind third string OT in 2007 playoff game vs Jaguars for one example)
If you look a the Cleveland Browns during the time that he was O.C. there you will see that they had the same exact problems. The old saying is that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, therefore it is time to end the Bruce Arians experiment.
Next, you have to look at Bob Ligashesky and evaluate the special teams. This year the coverage units have been horrible. But if the Steelers were to give him one more year as special teams coordinator I wouldn't be opposed due to the fact that the Steelers had the best coverage unit in the NFL in 2008.
The Steelers have several players that are going to be free agents, I'll speak of a few of them.
Casey Hampton has to be given a decent offer, if he decides to walk Chris Hoke can fill in for a year or so until another NT is drafted or signed.
Willie Colon is a restricted FA, so he will likely be back for at least one more season.
While Justin Hartwig is a UFA and should likely get a decent offer, depending on the Steelers higher priorities and their opinion of their other options.
But if Colon walks Trai Essex, Tony Hills, Ramon Foster, or even Kraig Urbik could battle for the RT spot. And if Essex goes to RT, Foster, Urbik, Doug Legursky, and Darnell Stapleton can battle for the RG spot.
If Hartwig walks Darnell Stapleton, Doug Legursky, and A.Q. Shipley can battle for the center spot.
Jeff Reed should also get an offer, but he must realize that the Steelers will not make him one of the highest paid kickers in the NFL. His off-field issues and poor kickoffs lower his value.
Willie Parker will not likely be back. With Rashard Mendenhall taking over as the starter and the very versitile Mewelde Moore backing him up Parker isn't really needed. Unless he'd be willing to sign for the veterans minimum, which is unlikely.
As far as Ryan Clark goes I'd make him an offer with the understanding that it will be based on his play during the 2009 season, which was very poor. I'd also want him to understand that a possible replacement will be drafted or signed, so there is a high possiblility that he'd be a backup.
Tyrone Carter's situation would depend on Ryan Clark's decison. If Clark re-signs, Carter is gone.
I'd like to see DeShea Townsend come back on a 1—year contract and I feel that's very possible.
I believe Charlie Batch is expendable due to Dennis Dixon. Having Dixon as the backup QB over Batch would save the Steelers some money and every little bit helps when you're close to the cap like the Steelers are.
Darnell Stapleton will likely be kept due to the fact that he's a RFA, versitle, and coming off an injury.
Free Agents that I'd look to sign (keep in mind that the Steelers very rarely sign big name free agents or get in a bidding war for player):
Dan Krieder. While he isn't what he once was, he's still a very good FB and that would allow the Steelers to use D. Johnson at TE on the line where he's a very good in-line blocker.
Darren Sharper. His age may keep him from commanding a big contract, therefore that along with his relationship with Mike Tomlin may allow him to become a Steeler. He is the ballhawking center field playing free safety that the Steelers need opposite of Troy. And he'd be willing to teach a rookie, if the Steelers would draft a FS in the draft.
Anthony Henry. Once played CB, but is now a safety. Would be better in coverage than Ryan Clark.
Mike Bell. Hard nosed runner that could spell Mendenhall and will likely come cheaper than Parker.
Kendrick Clancy. If Casey Hampton doesn't resign and a NT isn't drafted, Clancy could split time with Hoke.
Roman Harper. Kind of like Ryan Clark, but with better ball skills.
I'll talk about the draft and players available in the draft at a later date.