Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Things We Have Learned in the Preseason

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIAugust 22, 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Things We Have Learned in the Preseason

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    After sleepwalking in Washington and dominating the Eagles, many Steelers fans have shifted gears from prophecies of doom to visions of confetti in the space of a few days. Most loyalists realize that not everything in the preseason is as it appears, understanding that the utmost important facet of these exhibitions is to get better.

    While the wins and losses may not officially count for a few weeks, the events that lead to those results are to be carefully examined. They can teach us a lot about the status of the team, including the current state of the Black and Gold relative to whether they can win the Super Bowl.

    The NFL is an acronym for "No Freakin' Logic," and it is impossible to predict the little nuances that will affect the football landscape this fall. Yet, things look very promising in Pittsburgh, where a roster laden with talent showcased the pinnacle of its potential in a wonderful display in Thurday's Keystone Clash.

    Two games are down, and there are only two fake games to go.

    Fans will pay full price to go and watch these contests; hopefully, these full-paying patrons (the crime of the century) will be wise enough to look between the lines and beyond the scoreboard. Those pretend football contests will certainly offer some very real plays, and more things will be learned heading into an epic Week 1 clash against the Baltimore Ravens.

    With two exhibitions in the books, here are five things we have learned about the Pittsburgh Steelers going into the 2011 regular season.

No. 5: Joshua Cribbs—Steelers Killer No More! (Hopefully...)

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    Steelers fans have seen their team burnt more than their fair share on special teams, including an epic meltdown in the 2001 AFC Championship Game that included a returned punt touchdown by Troy Brown and blocked field goal.

    Needless to say, any rule change that eliminates the potential for a momentum-changing kick return (or special teams blunder in general) should be a welcome adjustment to the Steelers Nation. Yet, Steelers fans and NFL enthusiasts alike mostly agree that the rule changes, labelled as a change for the sake of safety, on kickoffs—moving the ball to the 35-yard line—is supremely silly.

    This takes away one of the most exciting elements of the game, and there is no guarantee the final outcome will be any different regarding injuries. Are special team units not going to set up blocks or run downfield full-throttle in case of a return? 

    Even more importantly, teams that have boasted special teams returner extraordinaires are going to lose a key element of their arsenal. As the weather worsens, perhaps returns will increase. As it stands so far this preseason, kicks during Steelers games have sailed out of the back of the end zone with regularity.

    In his career with the Browns, Joshua Cribbs has been a Steelers killer. Luckily, Cleveland has been so miserable that they haven't taken advantage of these gifts. Nevertheless, Cribbs' returns always have the potential to be game changers.

    In 2007 at Heinz Field, Cribbs picked up a bouncing football that had him backtrack to the 1-yard line, then progressed up the right sideline on the kickoff and used his physical artistry to stun Steelers fans. The kickoff touchdown was his second long return of the day, giving the Browns a late lead in a pivotal game, 28-24. The Steelers would rally to win.

    With Cribbs being cuffed as a result of any kickoff that sails deep into the end zone, there will be one less stressor for the Black and Gold in their divisional games against a Cleveland squad that many believe is getting better.

    In a season that is tailor-made for Pittsburgh momentum heading into January, two of their final four games are against the Browns. Typically, bad weather would have guaranteed short kickoffs to the acclaimed returner, but this season will at least see those touches limited. Maybe.

    On a recent broadcast of another NFL game, I saw a statistic on the screen that 38 percent of kicks are touchbacks. I can't imagine this is the case. It feels like 80 percent of kickoffs during this Steelers preseason have floated out of the end zone, most past the back line.

     

No. 4: The Steelers Are Wise to Have Interchangeable Offensive Linemen

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    History can repeat itself. Watching Jonathan Scott and Marcus Gilbert fall in short sequence against Philadelphia was deja'vu, a throwback to 2010 where Steelers linemen fell to injuries with a frightening regularity.

    The good news is that the Steelers have shown resiliency in overcoming the odds. The bad news is that the Eagles game taught us that it can happen again.

    I don't think anybody is realistically anticipating 16 games with all five linemen entrenched as starters. There are bound to be irregularities, including injuries. 

    Steelers fans just hope that these issues don't mount with rapid fire like Thursday night.

    The promise of a healthy line coupled with a franchise quarterback, fast and dynamic receivers and two great running backs has the Steel City salivating. With adversity being inevitable, the Steelers brass was wise to draft and keep offensive linemen that are flexible.

    Having a Lego set that comes together in one unique statue is great for collectors; but, for those that want to really play, the fun is in having no idea what the end result will be. So, being able to construct the blocks into the best available structure—in spite of missing pieces—is the key.  Having a preconception about what will work will only fail you when that one key "block" is gone.

    Last season, the drafting of Maurkice Pouncey gave the franchise a potential All-Pro center and guard. Gilbert is both a guard and tackle. 

    If nothing else, in spite of the hopes for a healthy season along the offensive front, 2010 taught Pittsburgh to be prepared for the worst possible scenario. If they hadn't already been prepared at that time, the team couldn't have made the run that they did.

    No team is more equipped for injuries along the offensive line than the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that's a good thing. 

    The Eagles game taught Steelers Nation that history can—and likely will—repeat itself.

No. 3: The Steelers Are the Best Team in Pennsylvania

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    It was only an exhibition. Yet, in a game against two preseason conference favorites, the Steelers won the vast majority of individual matchups and made their intrastate rivals look pedestrian.

    Bringing together great talent to play on a team does not a champion make; bringing together talent that plays as a great team does!

    If a Pennsylvania Super Bowl were to occur, it would be the dream of many, a personal feud that would see many college campuses in central Pennsylvania burn. I'm not advocating. Behave, future professionals of PA!

    However, as it stands, the new-look Eagles have not won a playoff game. The comparably talented Steelers (whose key players are already in place) have won and lost in their multiple Super Bowl appearances.

    On prerequisite measures, the Steelers are already the state's best team.

    Beyond accomplishments, many wonder who will have the best team in 2011. By season's end, it's difficult to determine which side of the Keystone State will boast the superior club. Right now, it's the Steelers.

    It was just the preseason, but both teams lined up with the same stakes and only one performed near the level of expectations. It's critical not to overreact to exhibition results, but ignoring them is equally foolhardy.

    The Eagles run defense was battered, and their defensive front lost most of their individual matches. The pass defense highlighted one potential area of concern. Announcers noted that the presence of Nnamdi Asomugha would force throws to the other side of the field, and Asante Samuel was very overaggressive on a play where he was burnt badly for a touchdown by Antonio Brown.

    These are issues of polish, however. Philadelphia annually fields a fine squad, and they will refine their roster with the skills necessary to be successful.

    The biggest area of concern is at quarterback. After such a disparity in the performances of both men, the notion of Michael Vick being ranked ahead of the Super Bowl-winning Roethlisberger on so many polls is further proof of the degradation of young football minds by fantasy games.

    Ben Roethlisberger did what he almost always does. He used his mobility to set up opportunities downfield, made excellent decisions and threw touchdowns.

    Michael Vick entered the game with high grades. A torrid stretch of great passing in 2010 apparently erased the career concerns that revolved around his inadequate passing numbers. Ultimately, Vick's sizzle fizzled, and his late interception secured the Eagles' exit from the 2011 playoffs.

    Yes, the full playbooks were not on display for either team. Sure, it was only an exhibition.

    But, if perfect practice makes perfect, Vick's preparation on Thursday was decidedly imperfect. As if back in his old Atlanta uniform, Vick was clearly frustrated with being unable to consistently get outside the pocket. The quarterbacking athlete has stated a commitment to focusing on the pass as his primary weapon.

    The focus is fine, but not without execution. Vick made poor decisions all night long, including throwing into coverage and missing the safety support on his worst interception of the evening.

    If these were new incidents, there would be no cause for alarm, but costing his teams in the air has been a Vick trademark. 

    Ben did better with utilizing his athleticism than did Vick. And, frankly, he normally does. With one of the largest yards-per-pass statistics in NFL history, Roethlisberger's uncanny ability to set up downfield opportunities with his mobility is well documented.

    The Eagles, on the other hand, haven't won a playoff game with Vick at the helm.

    Until the dream team wins in mid-January, placing them ahead of proven champions seems silly, as demonstrated by a dominant Steelers performance this past Thursday.

No. 2: A Healthy Troy Changes Everything

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    As Michael Vick hit Troy Polamalu's legs during the preseason game vs. Philadelphia, fans gasped. When the long-haired defensive demon (in all the good ways) got up off the grass unscathed, they breathed a sigh of relief.

    Yes, Troy is that important. Period.

    Would it have been wiser for him to just go down? Sure.

    But, if he did, that wouldn't be Troy. And Troy being Troy is exactly what the Steelers need and don't need (regarding exposure to injuries) to repeat as champions this season.

    Seeing No. 43 jump over offensive lines, torpedo through running backs in the backfield and teleport to the football is a welcome visual for all Steelers fans.

    Polamalu's game is predicated on a few uncanny skills. Intuition may be his finest asset, as the safety has mostly free reign with regard to adjusting his assignment based on gut instinct. 

    One of his physical gifts, his ability to quickly change direction and use his speed to adjust, makes this even more allowable. Troy is able to blow up plays when he makes the correct decision and recover nicely when his instincts are slightly off.

    As such, Troy's knee is the most valuable asset the Steelers have.

    If he stayed healthy, the Steelers would have likely won Super Bowl XLV (yeah, I said it!) and if  he stays healthy, they are serious frontrunners to win in Indianapolis this February.

    Yet, fans cannot expect too much from his style of play if his ligaments are not at 100 percent. The knee receives a great deal of stress in athletics, and his style of shifting gears and rocketing toward opponents depends on a stable ACL, MCL and every other "CL" in his knee cap.

    Fans who asked where he was during key plays this past playoff campaign need to go no further than that knee. When it's healthy, he is there.

    When it isn't, he physically cannot be himself. Plain and simple.

    Seeing Troy at his normal speed (speedometer cranked to the extreme!) only further illustrates the difference between healthy Polamalu and hurt Polamalu. He's been all over the field this preseason, not limited to being in the right place at the right time for Michael Vick's third interception.

    In your prayers at night, pray for that knee, Steelers fans! And for the overall health of Troy Polamalu!

No. 1: Ben Roethlisberger Is Set Up Nicely for a Career Year

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    The reasons for Ben Roethlisberger having a great 2011 are so obvious that they can be presented in outline form:

    A) A healthy offensive line (Hopefully)

    B) 16 full games with no distractions*

              *except James Harrison (kidding)

    C) A plethora of receiving talent, including:

              1) Mike Wallace, the AFC leader in yards per catch

              2) Veteran Hines Ward

              3) Promising burner Antonio Brown

              4) Stud and former Jets star Jericho Cotchery

              5) A determined Emmanuel Sanders, who will return from injury

              6) Heath Miller, a tight end with great hands

    D) The deterrence of three great running backs

              1) Bruising Isaac Redman

              2) Starter Rashard Mendenhall

              3) Third-Down Extraordinaire, Mewelde Moore

    E) Familiarity with established coordinator Bruce Aryans

    F) Most importantly, his own skill set

              1) Difficult to sack

              2) Mobile, able to extend the play

              3) Able to throw on the run better than any other quarterback today

              4) A championship pedigree

     

    Ben has showcased these strengths, putting together a promising performance against Philadelphia. He will look to continue his strong showing against the Falcons. 

    If Ben stays healthy, he has the offense around him and ability within him to have his greatest season as a professional.

    Ben Roethlisberger will have a career year in 2011, this being the single biggest reason the Steelers could return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time during his tenure.