The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers season has come upon Steelers Country like a storm of self-doubt, the first four weeks offering more questions than answers for a squad that was the preseason favorite of many to reach the Super Bowl for the fourth time in seven seasons.
The past week has seen many rain-filled days in Western Pennsylvania, and Steelers fans are pondering their team’s future in a fashion akin to the recent weather. Whether the rain drops are symbolic of falling tears for a successful era meeting an abrupt end or merely beads of sweat from a championship squad seeking immediate improvement, the truth behind the storm clouds developed from four games worth of questions is simple:
The unexpected struggles have caused great uncertainty.
If indeed the final 12 games represent an uphill climb for a team capable of success, the truth behind salvaging the swagger of the Steelers lies in a series of "nots," for both the fans and the franchise itself!
Not being in self-denial, unwilling to admit that some players are past their prime and that the problem lies merely in fundamentals. The slow start is not coincidence, and the apathy of recent hardware will create more problems in 2011.
Not blowing things out of proportion, blinded to the reality that an NFL season is fluid in nature and not tied to rigid notions of good and bad for any team. Teams get better and worse weekly, and the Steelers still have championship talent.
Not giving up, unable to take the season’s first four weeks as a catalyst for change and progression.
Not becoming adverse to change, opposed to sacrificing the playing time of those who are so endeared for the development of the team's youth and future.
Not being robotic, merely giving the public and/or our peers answers that are not actual solutions. Yes, we have to improve on the offensive line, but how? Bickering and solving problems do not equate, either as fans or in team offices.
Not being captured by blind optimism or pessimism, being unaware that the highs and lows are not as extreme as they may seem.
Not giving up.
Cosmetically hidden behind of cake of cynicism (the “lost season” perspective) and denial (the “it happens to everyone” theory) lies the truth for the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here are nine doses of reality about the season to-date as well as where things are headed as we gear up for winter. From those who are panicked to those in denial, and even the apathetic, these words are harsh only to cut through the misconceptions bred by disappointment.
While they didn't make the list, here are a couple examples of the types of truisms featured:
1. Forget the Super Bowl. The next 18 months will be the real test of the Tomlin regime's brass.
2. Ben Roethlisberger must develop strategies for a faster release considering the current circumstances on offense. While he has used play extension to set up long gains, this should not be his exclusive weapon, especially considering the current vulnerability.
Most call this a reality check. From one Steelers fan to another, I refer to this session of truth as a Myron Cope (who was ever more honest about the play of this team?) “Terrible Tell.”
While theories regarding the team's age and detereorating ability dominate water cooler talk in the Steel City, the core talent of a defense prideful for its reputation of stuffing the run is still in place.
Are we looking at an "over the hill" gang? Typically, the Steelers brass has known just the right time to part ways with great talent, even when sentiment cries for keeping past icons around. Normally, it occurs just before their decline.
Joey Porter, anyone?
Still, did the last six months removed from a Super Bowl really affect every member of a championship defense this much? Are we to believe the team mistimed the decline of James Farrior, Casey Hampton and friends all in unison?
Seems almost as silly as believing the unit aged out of football in thirty weeks.
At their best, the unit has been a brick wall, and even during its finest seasons, there have been 100 yard rushers.
It's never been 100 percent impossible to run on anybody; maybe just 99.999 percent unlikely.
To think of two 100-yard rushing games in four tries (Arian Foster and Ray Rice) as a coincidence belittles the reality that improvement is needed. After all, even as an outlier, hundred yard games allowed in the past have caused concern enough to go back to the drawing board. Or in today's age, the electronic clipboard.
One thing that doesn't need to happen is mass scale change. With a veteran crew, getting the young players repetitions shiould be a priority anyway, but there is no need to change the lineup....yet!
The Steelers can save that for the offseason, as I believe the talent in place can still get it done and will get these issues resolved....
....so long as they do not allow their reputation to precede them. Otherwise, the time for change IS now.
The Steelers are allowing nearly five yards per rush. While they've been gashed by cutbacks and counters around the edge, the real issue has been inside. Where a once stellar force of destruction rested at the middle of the d-line madness (more on the next slide), teams are now finding space to run in the inside gaps, drawing attention to the middle and thus leaving opportunities open on the outside.
Part of the issue is sheer tackling, the most basic of defensive skills and the most rare of assets displayed in today's NFL, where fundamentals seems lost. Dick Lebeau's units have always prided themselves on football 101, making tackles and playing with discipline. Thankfully, this is an issue that can be resolved, with tackling largely a matter of discipline and technique.
Aside from the missed tackles, which accounted for at least five positive gains from potential losses for Foster in Week 4, what else is a solution for Pittsburgh's run defense? Tighten up the middle.
Running a 3-4 defense in an age of intermediate passing and various roles for the linebackers aside from sheer gap control, a great deal of this stress falls on the play of tackle Casey Hampton, playing the nose on a defensive front that has been a bully for years.
With better tackling and a tighter interior (easier said than done, but possible), the defensive line will see benefits across the board.
Likewise, with such a veteran group and promising young talent, the team should continue to give the most promising up and comers experience. In fact, the coaches may want to consider increasing the rotations, especially along the defensive front.
We all know the talent is here to do the job. After all, we've seen glimmers of hope this very season.
Let's not forget that Aaron Smith made a few fine stops on rushing attempts that were set up for far more yardage than what was earned, along with some other fine plays in the backfield. Pride in the defensive trenches is not totally lost, despite the unit's worst numbers since the days preceding Chuck Noll.
And, frankly, the unit held the Texans—a premiere NFL offense—to 17 points. With that being the case, the loss in Texas is hardly attributable to the defense.
Even as recently as a few years ago, many fans had difficulty with the loss of the energetic and menacing linebacker Joey Porter. After all, who doesn't love a few good one-liners building up to a game?
In the early 1980's, a dynastic Steel City team could no longer win the way they used to win. Some retired and a few tried their shots with other teams. Franco Harris in Seattle is still the equivalent of regurgitating needles.
To this very day, those Steelers players of the 70's were the last breed to have to say good-bye to the game after years of glory and championship play.
That was in an era before free agency, when players weren't nomads who retired after wearing five different NFL helmets.
In the very near future, a second wave of partings—the likes of which will again be such sweet sorrow—will happen.
The oldest defense in football doesn't become too old overnight. But, in a space of a couple of seasons, it loses a step.
Whether or not that step is already lost (or able to be regained) is up for debate, but the key objective for Steelers management is simple:
Dispose and replenish talent before those steps are lost.
Lawrence Timmons has potential to be the next great linebacker, and while Ziggy Hood's durability in the current defensive scheme is debatable, he looks able to contribute for the long haul.
It's only a matter of time before Woodley is high-kicking again.
Ike Taylor's new contract secures a key member of the secondary for the foreseeable future, while Troy Polamalu's rapid descent into becoming "the NFL's most overrated player" (Have to love Pete Prisco!) seems very premature. Actually, it is just foolishness to describe Troy as anything but a disruptive force and all-pro player.
What about James Farrior and Casey Hampton? Are they seriously keeping up with the demands of an NFL schedule these days? Of course, the performance (and hopefully, improvement) of the defense will provide the demonstration of their current skill level in the weeks ahead.
And, with such a late start to the pinnacle of his career, have we been witnessing the peak and twilight of James Harrison simultaneously.
Say it isn't so!
Either way, great players have come and gone from the Pittsburgh defense at inopportune time, some as a decision of management, a few of their own choosing and others as works of fate.
Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter and Rod Woodson are a few of the all-star defenders whose talents were removed from the Steel Curtain (in whatever respective carnation existed) in an apparent premature timeframe.
Still, with such repeat success and an almost uncanny knack for replacing talent, this marks only the second time in Steelers history that a group of CHAMPIONS, endeared into the hearts and memories of all Black and Gold faithful, will be moving on.
It's a tough process, but it is not far off...and could be coming sooner than expected.
Everyone on defense owns a responsibility to their team—a squad in the midst of some soul searching—to work hard on doing things better in order to get back on track.
As it concerns the unit's main concern, a sudden struggle with stopping the run, nobody is more important to the cause than nose tackle Casey Hampton. Arguably the game's elite defensive tackle, the former Longhorn has been an animal along the interior line for many seasons.
With the Steelers' long-entrenched tradition of running the 3-4 scheme, Hampton lowers his crown along the most vital part of the team's defensive structure. Without a superb nose tackle, the strategy is almost worthless.
So, while everyone owns their role in getting better, Hampton must improve. He was among those Steelers missing tackles last week and getting domineered at the line of scrimmage.
Don't believe me? Watch the tape! Hampton is one of many players who cannot allow this to happen.
Of everyone, Casey Hampton is the one player who absolutely unequivocally cannot allow that to happen. His is point blank the most crucial position on the defense.
He is the physical presence at the center of the Steelers' proud defensive line, and his role is the one that will make or break the defense's success (or lack thereof) going forward.
How does the run defense break the stigma of age and get back on track? A cumulative effort is needed, but the most important cog of this focus is the biggest cog- literally!
For this season to be a success, Hampton must be a success. Period.
It's time to take the Three Rivers Stadium approach with the offensive line. That is, time to blow it up!
Surrounded by exceedingly great talent that could overcome their mediocrity, the Steelers offensive line has been just average enough to get by and hasn't made any serious strides in the past two seasons.
As wise fans know, talent rarely stays the same. Typically, players display progression or regression.
Checkmark the box for the latter with these louses. After years of rearranging linemen to find the right fit, 2011 is proof that lego blocks are useless if they have no connector plugs. No matter the combination, these guys just can't snap together for any consistent length of time.
Excuses have varied for the squad, from those trying to be fair to fans trying to hide the issue:
"It's Ben's style of play!" "We win with them, right?" "What do you expect? They're hurt!"
It's getting old. Time to be blunt: The offensive line is terrible. And, it is time for the team to make replacing the unit a top priority, even at the sacrifice of other talent.
With a future Pro Bowl and potential Hall of Fame center in Pouncey, the Steelers need to focus on building a wall for their franchise quarterback to operate behind. Remember when Roethlisberger played with unimagineable aplomb in 2004 as a rookie?
Imagine that man with his experience today behind that offensive line.
Now, think of Ben as a rookie playing behind today's science experiment.
An annual Steelers focus has lost priority, and fans have lost patience. Pittsburgh has featured some of the finest offensive hogs in the history of the game, lines that have propelled far more pedestrian skill players to success.
Give a player time to break open on a route, time to see the field or a lane to run through, and the result is obviously success.
Take all of that away...and well, why not place your quarterback in a straight jacket, because his hands are tied.
Serious changes are needed on the offensive line. While they're not awful in every game, they are lousy against elite defensive linemen, as well as a liability that an offense rife with talent cannot afford.
Can the Steelers win games—sinner the Super Bowl—with their current line? I don't believe so, though I know the right blend of guys from the current roster could bandage the issue long enough to be in contention.
Beyond 2011, ignoring the o-line issues would be foolhardy. For the team to be where it should in the offensive trenches, the turnover may need to be as high as 50 percent.
Many fans and experts are pointing to the limited practice structure, especially time in pads, as a catalyst for the bad fundamentals the Steelers have put on display in the early season.
Most of the theory is that the line play is poor on both sides of the ball due to restricted repetitions and workouts that are no longer as vigorous following the new collective bargaining agreement.
If this is true, I'd advise the players who still pride their reputation keep their mouths shut and practice until they are able to perform in a manner conducive to earning the pay that the franchise has deemed as their value.
Moreover, I doubt this as the case. As it concerns age, it is contradictory. If this theory played as true, the team with more experience would have less negative impact from the less demanding practice regimen. Their bodies would have more time to heal, take less strain and be more fresh. In fact, the veterans are the ones most familiar with the demands of a vigorous NFL season.
Many defenses are still putting in an yeoman's work in the NFL. For the scorn the defensive line has taken in this early season, let's not forget that the Steelers did play well against Seattle and have been displaying mastery of the issue for nearly a decade.
Further, as offensive lines are concerned, the Steelers, for all of the claims of improvement due to better health that preceded the year, have fielded a mediocre line for years. After getting fortunate with their mixing and matching, the wrong pieces and replacements have been seemingly utilized in 2011.
Around the league, with similar practice restraints and rules in place across all 32 teams, offensive lines are run blocking (many teams are averaging over four years per carry) well and pass blocking like virtuosos of the craft. Many of the league's quarterbacks have time to play tiddlywinks before passing the football.
More than any theories above, the notion that a refined stance by the league on practice is the cause of the Steelers' demise proves only one thing.
If it is the case, the season was simply over before it started—and still is! So, Steelers fans who still have aspirations had better hope that this is not a rational explanation for the team's early season struggles.
Here's a thought: Maybe a better explanation is that it is the early season!
In a season that has started disappointingly, Ike Taylor and Mike Wallace have brought excitement to Steelers Country throughout the first quarter of the NFL season.
Ike has been exceptional in his cover corner role, largely shutting down opponent's top receivers. Before an injury to Andre Johnson, the receiver had been contained for nearly all of the first half.
Taylor nearly gave up a huge play against Curtis Painter and the Colts, but the football gods intervened and allowed Ike to continue basking in the light of a job well done.
Meanwhile, Mike Wallace has been sensational on offense. Can you imagine his numbers if Ben Roethlisberger had time to establish a chemistry with him downfield or the benefit of play action passing?
Wallace's statistics are on pace to challenge the all-time NFL receiving record held by Jerry Rice. His big play ability is a threat that keeps the Steelers in nearly every game. Without his presence, few would argue that Pittsburgh's record would stand at 1-3.
With complete confidence, Mike Wallace and Ike Taylor are the offensive and defensive MVP's (respectively) for the Steelers in this young campaign.
With 13 catches for 136 yards this season, Hines Ward's total receiving production barely eclipses Mike Wallace's totals during a single quarter against the Colts.
In fact, it barely exceeds the yards gained by Mike Wallace on two premiere catches.
Averaging a hair over 30 yards per game, Ward is on pace for his lowest receiving total since his rookie season. In his sophomore year, a time when the future standout was still not fully removed from the ranks of a great special teams player, the receiver contributed more yards per game.
While one could argue that Ben Roethlisberger's limited time in the pocket is negating opportunities for his receivers, nearly every other pass catcher has taken advantage of the opportunities provided to them.
Truthfully, the latter makes more sense; with Ben needing his safety valves to deliver the football, other wideouts have stepped up to the plate.
Antonio Brown's improved play in the second half against Houston catalyzed the team's rally. He has 16 catches for 223 yards, eclipsing his total from 2010 already.
Brown's performance has the mark of a man dedicated to improving his production.
In the offseason, this was Ward's claim, desiring to come back from one of his most anemic statistical seasons ever.
Ward's totals are only better than Emmanuel Sanders among receivers who have gotten significant playing time in 2011.
Considering the state of the offense, wouldn't it be Hines that one would expect as a safety valve, able to make plays and move the sticks?
The physical tough guy receiver who we all love and admire has dropped a few balls, had a few uncharacteristic fumbles in recent seasons and failed to get yards after the catch.
Sure, he can still block like a machine, but the Steelers need him for more than his well-timed pad popping with the league's most frustrated corners.
Who doesn't want to see Ward break out for another eight reception game, bruising his way to 120 yards and a pair of scores? Who doesn't feel warm when they recall his athleticism, getting into the endzone twice against Philadelphia in 2004 before flapping his "eagle wings?"
We all want this for Hines. But will it happen?
Every once in a while, Ward makes a sensational catch to remind us of his (former?) greatness.
Sadly, those days are looking more in the past than ever. If he can't get back on track in 2011, Ward should consider retiring as the most physical receiver in league history and a testament of hard work, dedication and great play to those who succeed him.
In fact, is there any hot seat with a whiter flame than that of Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio?
Beyond their team struggles, both former division rivals (from the AFC Central) field is mediocre, if not downright poor, pass-rushing defensive lines.
The Titans and Jaguars have combined for nine total sacks and lack the prowess along the defensive front that Pittsburgh has competed against the last two weeks. It is the perfect tonic for what ails them but should not be viewed as an opportunity for a reprieve.
Both squads fare better against the run.
While both Jacksonville and Tennessee sport fine runners, the Titans recently lost their best receiver (sound familiar to today?), while the Jaguars offense starts a signal-caller inferior to Tavaris Jackson, a quarterback who was shutout against the Steelers in Week 2.
The Steelers need to make progress against these teams in order to prepare for much stiffer assignments shortly thereafter.
If Pittsburgh is unable to play better along both the offensive line versus the Jaguars and Titans, their hopes for victory afterwards are slim. In fact, much like the Steelers served as the perfect tonic for Houston's defense today, the Jags and Tites (sorry, had to add the "e" for the children) need to do the same for the Steelers.
It would be foolish to overlook either opponent, especially considering that the franchise has traditionally stuggled against both. Still, both matchups are promising, and the Steelers should be favored in each.
Can they take advantage?
Assuming they can win both games to reach 4-2, they'll have regained some of the momentum lost in a pair of weeks that demands some soul searching for the proud champions. To lose either game would drop the squad to 3-3.
If they cannot sweep these next two weeks and utilize the subsequent momentum against tougher opponents, they will be at serious risk for a losing record heading into the season's second half.
Fans can laugh all they want, cracking jokes about Pittsburgh having no shot in either of these games based on the last few weeks. Nevertheless, if loyal Steelers fanatics have any inkling of hope for the team to get back on track and meet their preseason expectations, a win over one of these juggernauts is a must.
Forget the records. Every NFL team needs a keynote win to showcase their potential.
The Steelers are far from championship material, though they will work to improve in the coming weeks to get their championship roster (a simple fact) back on track.
Along the way, defeating teams like Jacksonville, St. Louis and Cincinnati are an absolute necessity mathematically.
Numbers are only half the battle. To have any true confidence, the Steelers must beat Baltimore or New England.
In their current state of play, who expects that? In four weeks, Pittsburgh hosts the first of those teams, as Tom Brady returns to Heinz Field in an attempt to continue to be the bane of the Steelers' existence.
A week later, the Ravens—who thoroughly whipped the Steelers on opening weekend—come to the confluence for a rematch between the hated rivals.
While the Steelers can afford to split those contests, losing both is not an option if they wish to eventually defend their conference throne.
Assuming they can make the improvements necessary to contend, a win is vital for their placement in the standings.
More importantly, a win over an elite AFC power will vindicate the team that played in the Super Bowl just eight months ago.
The NFL is a "what have you done for me lately" proposition. Forget last February.
The Steelers have one more real shot at proving themselves in 2011-12. Without a victory in that set of games, the rest of the schedule, even if they make the postseason, is only superficial.