For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is not too late to turn around a disappointing start to the season. The team has only played one good game out of four, and should feel fortunate to just be one game behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North.
The team has displayed a lot of weaknesses, but they have the pedigree to get things straightened out. If they are going to stop the bleeding, it needs to start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. Here are five keys to fixing the Steelers' 2011 season.
Four-time Pro Bowler and 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison, is out indefinitely with a broken orbital bone, while Aaron Smith is doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans. On paper, the loss of two staples of the 3-4 defense could spell the end for the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the flip side, however, the replacements have the opportunity to inject some speed and energy into a defense desperately in need of both. Ziggy Hood and rookie Cam Heyward will split reps at Smith’s spot; representing the future of the defensive line.
Hood played well for the injured Aaron Smith in 2010, compiling five sacks in 13 starts. Heyward was impressive in the preseason, and the young duo has the chance to stand up and scream to Steeler Nation, “The future is now!”
Lawrence Timmons is the team’s fastest linebacker, and slides into Harrison’s spot on the outside. Timmons’ speed in a position more designed for playmakers could make him a monster in the offensive backfield. Former starter Larry Foote steps in at inside linebacker. While Foote is neither young nor fast, he will tackle everything in front of him.
A questionable Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is nothing new. The front five have been a potential problem ever since long-time starters Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca signed elsewhere. Yet, until this season, the line has always come together to play better than the sum of its parts.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the line held up enough to get Ben Roethlisberger and company to two Super Bowls.
A lot of that had to do with continuity and chemistry, something Big Ben goes out of his way to embrace. The linemen are his guys; they are the guys he hangs out with off the field and the guys he buys dinner as thanks for doing the dirty work.
The 2011 unit has not had that. Part of it probably has to do with the lockout, as a lot of new faces were expected to step up. Early injuries have prevented the continuity from developing on the field. If the Steelers have a chance of turning the season around, growth in the line has to start now.
Big Ben cannot keep getting battered the way he has been.
The coaches have to come up with a starting five, stick with them for the rest of the year, and hope they can get lucky with avoiding injuries. The line has been so bad as a whole, it is hard to tell what is working, and what isn’t. That’s why the coaches get paid to look at film and evaluate the talent.
For my money, the team needs to go to battle with this five (from left to right) and stick with them: Recently re-signed Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky, and rookie Marcus Gilbert.
Rashard Mendenhall (hamstring) may not be ready to go on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. This may not be such a bad thing, though. At least until the team gets the line straightened out. Mendenhall is a great player, and a big-time back, and I do not think his lackluster stats have anything to do with his ability.
Still, he is more a speed back with power, while Isaac Redman is a power back with speed. Mendenhall has spent the majority of 2011 trying to shake defenders in his own backfield, a tough task to ask of anyone. He has not been able to find holes, and is averaging a career-low three yards per carry.
Redman has been something of a revelation, averaging five yards per carry. On the year, Redman has just 66 fewer yards than the starter, even though Mendenhall has 36 more carries. Allowing him to drag defenders for positive yardage may be the best option while Pittsburgh solidifies the line.
Pulling on the notion of embracing a Redman’s physical style, the team needs to give him the rock 25 times on Sunday. With the Young-Money crew, as well as sure-handed veterans Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery, and Heath Miller, there was talk the Steelers may open things up in 2011.
With the offensive line in shambles, the team needs to throw that idea out the window.
Now, it’s time for good-old-fashioned Steelers’ football to pick up the pieces. A 250-pound bruiser carrying tacklers for positive yardage can make an offensive line look better than it is, and create confidence for the unit going forwards.
It is time for a grind-it-out day for the offense. Let Redman punish defenders while Mendenhall gets healthy. The offensive line can get some cohesion, and then the team can get back to taking advantage of Mendenhall and the rest of the playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.
While the offensive line may have been a bit of an expected failure, what is shocking is the defense's inability to stop the run. The team has given up over 100 yards to both Ray Rice and Arian Foster, after going three years without giving up one.
Timmons is a great athlete, but he can be dragged by a power back. By starting Larry Foote, the team loses some speed, but gains a more punishing tackler. Foote and James Farrior leave a lot to be desired in pass coverage, but they are brick walls in the middle of the defense.
This is probably the easiest aspect to write about and the most difficult to execute. Still, creating turnovers has been as much a staple of the Dick LeBeau defense as stopping the run. A quarter of the way into the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers rank dead last in the NFL in both creating turnovers (one) and turnover differential (-10).
How the Steelers have gone from second in the NFL to dead last in the span of one season is difficult to explain. The art of the turnover comes from three pieces: One part execution by the defense, one part mistake by the offense, and one part luck. Right now, Pittsburgh is not getting any of those parts right, and it is showing.
A little dumb luck may spark the D back to Super Bowl form, but the team certainly cannot rely on that, nor rely on opposing offenses to screw up. Steelers fans will have to hope crafty ol’ LeBeau still has some tricks up his sleeve, and is ready to unleash them against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
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