Though Steelers' 2009 Season May Be Over, Future Looks Bright in the Burgh
The fat lady has sung! It is officially over. As painful as that is to say, the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2009 season is over with three games left to play.
I wrote a sarcastic article earlier this week stating all of the changes that need to be made to the Steelers, but now it is time to look at what really needs to happen in the offseason.
Some people will be calling for the head of Mike Tomlin. Not me.
Mike Tomlin is a very good young coach that is in the learning process. What needs to happen is Tomlin needs to accept his position as the leader of this team. The first thing that has to be done is the decisions on his coaching staff.
Bruce Arians: The Steelers offense is stagnant. They are able to move the ball, but they are unable to score once they enter the red zone. Not only that, Arians' play calling is beyond predictable.
Every time we line up in a running formation, we run. Every time we line up in a passing formation, we pass. It HAS to be mixed up, but I do not think that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
There are too many weapons on this team for them to not be scoring at least 28 points per game. Arians is not able to lead the Steelers to this level.
Dick LeBeau: The question is not whether Tomlin will keep LeBeau; the question is, does LeBeau want to continue coaching? Odds are LeBeau will have his name announced prior to the Super Bowl as one of the newest entrants into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He deserves the honor.
The question is, once he reaches that lifelong goal, will he want to continue coaching? Not only that, but if Bill Cowher does decide to return to coaching, will he want to take LeBeau with him where he goes? There is little secret that Cowher will try to take some of the members of his old coaching staff with him. What will LeBeau do when this opportunity presents itself?
Bob Ligashesky, special teams coach: The Steelers' special teams were their Achilles' heel this season. They set a record for most returns for scores in the history of the NFL. I know the coaches coach and the players play, but the players were not coached well enough to make this unit successful.
The blame for this has to fall on the shoulders of Ligashesky. To say he did not do a good job at coaching would be an understatement. He needs to be fired as soon as the last game ends.
The Steelers are set at the starter's position; where the decisions have to be made is at backup.
Dennis Dixon did a good job in his only appearance this year starting in Baltimore against the Ravens. In my opinion, he did a good enough job to earn the backup role. Charlie Batch may still have some gas left in the tank, but the future for the Steelers is NOW.
Even though Ken Anderson has done a respectable job, Batch is a Steeler all the way. He cares about this team and has done more for Ben Roethlisberger than any QB coach could. Hopefully he will come to the team as a coach instead of a player.
One of the few bright spots of the 2009 season, Rashard Mendenhall has shown that he is ready, willing, and able to be the feature back of the Steelers. He is powerful and quick and brings a dimension to the Steelers they have not had in a long time. Entering his third year, he should be ready to be one of the best backs in the league.
The hardest decision is what to do with Willie Parker. Parker came to the Steelers as an undrafted free agent. He was explosive and was a perfect complement to Jerome Bettis. Those days are long gone, and he no longer has the blazing speed that he once had. The Steelers, moving forward, will be best served to let Parker walk away.
Mewelde Moore is one of the best third down backs in the NFL. He is great at catching out of the backfield, great at picking up blitzes, and can run the ball pretty decently when not asked to run a sweep on 3rd-and-1.
Added to Mendenhall and Moore, the Steelers have two great young players that have been rotated off the bottom of the roster in Isaac Redman and Justin Vincent. Both have a ton of potential and will compete for the Steelers' third running back spot next year.
Hines Ward is not only one of the best receivers in the league, and the best in Steelers history (which is saying a lot), but is the leader of this team as well. He proved his toughness once again by playing in Cleveland with the hamstring injury. Even though he is not the elite receiver he once was, he is still better than anyone on many teams in the league.
Santonio Holmes made 2009 the best season of his career. He is not yet the top-flight receiver he wants to be, but he has improved every year. Holmes is already drawing the opposition's best cover corner, and his numbers are the best of his career.
Mike Wallace is the surprise of the season, coming to the Steelers in the third round of the 2009 draft. He has explosive speed and is becoming the weapon the Steelers hoped he would eventually become.
Limas Sweed was brought in to be what Mike Wallace has become. He has not shown that he is capable of being consistent enough catching the ball. Does that mean that he should be released this offseason? No, but it does mean that once training camp comes along, if he cannot show that his hands have improved, he will not make the final roster cut.
Heath Miller was re-signed this past offseason. His normally reliable hands have taken a hit in the last few weeks. Whatever the problem is that he's having catching the ball can probably be corrected, and I am sure that next year he will be back to the sure-handed receiver he was.
Matt Spaeth is a great backup but was not used much this season. He is a big target that should be used more than he has been in the red zone.
David Johnson has been another pleasant surprise in the 2009 draft class. He has done a decent job as a back up TE but has done better playing fullback. He needs to be converted to the position full-time and if needed in an emergency move to tight end.
There is a lot less talk this year about the ability of the offensive line. The starting unit has come together and is playing better than most people thought they would. Most of the players are under contract for the future, except Trai Essex and Willie Colon. Both Colon and Essex have played well, and they may still be brought back.
Kraig Urbik and Ramon Foster, two rookies, will be expected to contribute more in 2010. Foster showed flashes of talent when he got his first career start against the Ravens. Urbik has not played much this year, but what he does in the offseason will go a long way to deciding his future with the Steelers.
The oldest unit on the team, there are more questions here than any other area of the team. The toughest decision for the Steelers is what to do with Casey Hampton. The answer cannot be determined until the Steelers know what is going to happen with Dick LeBeau and what his future holds. If LeBeau leaves, as much as Steelers fans don't want to believe, the Steelers may be switching to a 4-3 defense.
If the Steelers switch, Hampton will probably be allowed to leave. Hampton is a great nose tackle for the 3-4 but is too big and not fast enough for the 4-3.
Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Nick Eason, and Travis Kirschke all play end, but in the 4-3 they could play tackle.
The real future of this team was drafted in the 2009 draft. Ziggy Hood and Sonny Harris are going to be the future of the Steelers' line and will both be keys to the Steelers defense starting next year.
The Steelers are known for their linebacking corps, and that is going to continue into the future. LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, Tomlin's first two drafted players, are both in the early stages of what look to be great careers. Woodley has already earned the right to be considered one of the best OLBs in the game, while Timmons has taken leaps and bounds since replacing Larry Foote.
James Harrison will again be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. The biggest question for the Steelers is, how long will James Farrior be able to play at the All-Pro level he plays at? Farrior was resigned to a contract extension last year and still is one of the best players on the team.
If Farrior can not compete at his current level, Keyaron Fox has made strides to eventually replace Farrior. As always, the Steelers' linebacking corps looks to continue its dominance for years to come.
Ike Taylor has been known to be a shutdown corner, and IF he could catch he would be considered one of the best corners in the league. It appears that Taylor is starting to slow down, but I don't think he is in any fear of losing his job just yet.
Will Gay was believed to be ready to take over for Bryant McFadden. That turns out not to be the case. Deshea Townsend, who has been a loyal Steeler since being drafted in the 1998 draft, is showing his age. I see Townsend the same way I see Charlie Batch: Both are great players that have been great Steelers, but the end of the line may be here.
Keenan Lewis and Rob Burnett are two additions to the Steelers roster from the 2009 NFL Draft, and both are working at becoming key contributors for the Steelers.
Troy Polamalu needs to be placed on injured reserve today. There is no sense in keeping him on the active roster when this season is already over. Polamalu, when healthy, is a game-changing player and one of the best not only in the NFL, but in the history of the sport. A healthy Polamalu in 2010 will improve the Steelers' roster, not only from a talent standpoint but from a leadership standpoint.
Ryan Clark is the biggest question. Will he return to the Steelers next year? Will he jump ship for a bigger contract? Will the Steelers go after him hard? Clark plays great, but will keeping him hinder the progress of Ryan Mundy?
Mundy is again with the Steelers after joining the team in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. Mundy has good size (6'1") and could eventually turn into a great starter. Is he ready to take over the starter's spot from Clark? That I don't know, but if Clark is not re-signed, then he is not going to have much of a choice but to.
Jeff Reed is a great field goal kicker in Heinz Field. There are not a lot of kickers that can say that. Heinz Field is one of the hardest stadiums in the NFL to kick in, and Reed excels at it. For that alone, I think he should be brought back.
For those of you that think his off-field issues should keep the Steelers from bringing him back, think about this:
If the Steelers are down by two points with two seconds left on the clock, and we need a 45-yard field goal to make it to the playoffs, who would you rather have, that is available, to kick that field goal?
The only knock on Reed is that he is not that great at kicking off. If we have someone that could boot the ball close to the end zone that can tackle, he should be used at kickoffs. Enter...
Daniel Sepulveda: Sepulveda is great at punting, and as a linebacker in college, Sepulveda knows how to hit. If we could teach Sepulveda to kick off, it would immediately bolster the kicking game and make the Steelers that much better on special teams.
To close, I would like to go back to Mike Tomlin. In his first season, training camp was a bear. It was so hard that, come the end of the season, the players were exhausted. In his second season, he lightened up a little, and the result was the Super Bowl victory. In his third season, training camp was known as "Camp Cupcake." The result: a weak team with no push to dominate late in the game.
As I said earlier, Tomlin is learning. This shows that come training camp, he needs to be tough and work the players hard, but not try to dominate them.
This Steelers team still has the potential to be a dominant unit. They are a good mix of youth and veterans. They have All-Pro players at a lot of key positions. They have a franchise QB, a running back that can be a dominant one, receivers that are and have been elite, and a strong, young offensive line that has had plenty of time to grow together.
On defense, they are strong at every position. The mix on the defensive line of youth/vets is going to pay dividends in the future, they still have the dominant linebackers, and in the secondary, they will get a healthy Polamalu back to go with talented young corners.
This Steelers team is set to continue to dominate into the future—it just won't happen this year.
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