Pittsburgh Steelers Top Priority: Protect Ben Roethlisberger

Mimi McCannCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 10: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is sacked by David Thorton and Jovan Haye #75 of the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field on September 10, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Titans 13-10 in overtime. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

In the voluminous outpouring of analysis of the Steelers' running game that has followed the Steelers vs. Titans game last Thursday, what is missing is the amazing fact that the Steelers won.

True, I am unabashedly clinging to a silver lining but honestly, I feel that the 2008 Steelers would have lost that game had it been their season opener the previous September.

Looking back to the four losses suffered by the Steelers in the 2008 season, reasons can be found to applaud the progress that has been made by the team in the offseason and perhaps get our hopes back on track for a repeat.

Lets start with the first loss of last season, the nightmarish game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

In last Thursday's season opener against the Tennessee Titans, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked for more total yards and threw more picks than in last year's week two against the Eagles.

Willie Parker's performance was one of the liabilities singled out as a strike against the Steelers' chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions this season.

Underscored by the fact that statistically, Parker's game was very close to being identical to his performance in last year's week two fiasco against the Eagles in Philadelphia, we see that this lack of production on the ground cannot be allowed to continue.

In fact, it was also very close to his performance in the last season's loss to the Titans where he rushed for 19 total yards on 31 attempts, averaging 1.6 yards per carry. 

Against the Eagles last year, Parker finished with 20 total yards on 13 attempts, averaging 1.5 yards per carry.  

Last Thursday, Parker managed 19 yards on 13 attempts averaging 1.5 yards per carry.

Flipping it around, amazingly, Tennessee amassed more total passing and rushing yards in the 2009 opener than Philadelphia was able to manage as they manhandled the Steelers in 2008.

No doubt, we absolutely need a running game.  

I do agree with Coach Tomlin that a win is a win and 20 years from now, we will indeed forget that we squeaked by the Titans but, without a running game, we are vulnerable week after week. 

It appears however, that the fatal flaw to last year's team that reared its ugly head in their week two loss to the Eagles was the unforgivable eight sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.

The total loss of 35 yards doesn't begin to tell the story of how the repeated pounding took its toll on Roethlisberger, and prevented him from leading his team down the field when they needed him most.

Of Roethlisberger's three turnovers in that game, two fumbles were cashed in resulting in two Eagles' field goals.  The pick did not result in points because Bryant McFadden picked McNabb on the very next series.

Six points resulting from three turnovers is really not very bad in the grand scheme of things.  

Comparing the two games, it appears that the main problem was that the sacks resulted in confusing a quarterback whose strength lies not just in his play making ability, but in his focus and confidence under pressure.

All four losses by the 2008 Steelers were suffered at the hands of their opponent's 4-3 defenses and all included pressure to the quarterback resulting in sacks or turnovers.

Willie Parker has been criticized for his lack of confidence that manifests itself in his indecisive running technique.

Last year, Parker had come off of an impressive return to Heinz Field when the Steelers marched into Philly in week two of the 2008 season.

If confidence issues alone caused his dismal lack of production, as has been suggested, it should not have factored into last year's game against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.  Parker had scored three touchdowns and rushed for 138 yards in the Steelers' 2008 season opener, he should have felt pretty good going into week two.

In last year's  Philly game, Parker's production was evidence of a detrimental weakness in the running game but the eight sacks on Roethlisberger brought about the ultimate downfall for the Steelers.

This year, the offensive line has something to prove and they are playing with their hearts on their sleeves.

Thursday night, after Ben's Hail Mary at the end of the first half resulted in a jump ball being picked by cornerback Cortland Finnegan, we saw big 350 lb. Max Starks chase an 188 lb. player 80 yards down field to tackle him at the Pittsburgh 20 yd. line and save a touchdown at the half.  

Since there are still questions as to whether it was worth it to pay Starks when the Steelers signed him this summer, that should answer a few of them.

The second half featured an offensive line that provided time for Roethlisberger to stand and make decisions.

Ben has shown that even without time and space, he has been able to be decisive.  How much more effective will he be with the improved pass protection.

The offense started slow but they clicked in early enough in the game, early in the season.  

I believe that there is improvement in two of the three areas of weakness in the Steelers game.  I would add pass protection by the offensive line to improved punt and kick returns.

That still leaves our running game and we are no doubt vulnerable without vast improvement in that area.

The difference is, this year we may eke out some victories in games that we may have lost last year.

This week, we travel to Soldier Field to face another tough 4-3 defense in the Chicago Bears, though there are gaps in their armor to be exploited.

The newly re-tooled 3-4 Packer defense was able to pressure Cutler.  We will not have Troy Polamalu, the interception machine, but LeBeau can create pressure.

Confusing Cutler will certainly take some heat off of our secondary and that will help tremendously with Troy Polamalu on the sidelines.

The Bears' loss of linebacker Brian Urlacher enabled Packers's running back Ryan Grant to make some progress up the middle which is good news for Parker.

The season is still young and it is way too early to panic, but when you compare the Eagles game from last year, that included poor running stats for Parker, we were fortunate to come out of last Thursday's game winners.

Lets hope that the Steelers' coaching staff will do whatever it takes to get the running game on track.

In the mean time, give props to the O-line for protecting Ben in the second half of their season opener.  They helped to save us from losing on Thursday, and if an early loss can creep in and become poison to the psyche of a team trying to repeat, they may have just helped to save our season.


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