Pittsburgh Steelers: Jeff Reed Gets Kicked Out and Other Pre-Raiders Thoughts
Ten weeks and nine games into the NFL season and the Pittsburgh Steelers have finally done something that almost everyone expected to happen at some point.
Jeff Reed, the team's kicker since mid-2002, was cut today in favor of journeyman kicker Shaun Suisham.
The Steelers, after losing a terribly played game to the New England Patriots on Sunday night, have some serious issues to discuss, but the problems Reed has had in his own stadium this season were the most pressing. In dealing with them, it can only be hoped that Pittsburgh has stopped one problem from continually shooting the team in the foot.
Here's some pre-Raiders thoughts, including a look at the team's new kicker.
Happy Trails, Welcome Aboard
Meet the new guy. Shaun Suisham gets the not-so-beloved task of being the home kicker at Heinz Field. He is probably on a short leash after the team already cut one kicker who'd been in Pittsburgh since before Mike Tomlin or his staff.
Suisham is not exactly the awe-inspiring signing that would have silenced the worried Steelers faithful. He's got a success rate of 75 percent when it comes to field goals made. He's also been cut twice because of his poor kicks.
This may have been the best the team could do on short notice, but it's unlikely that Suisham will be around after the season or even for its duration if he doesn't start turning around his career.
We've been here before, however. The Steelers had a situation years ago when their steady veteran kicker couldn't cut it at Heinz Field anymore and they had a mid-week audition that resulted in a relatively unknown kicker emerging as a consistent star.
That was Jeff Reed.
The Steelers bid farewell to one of the 10 most accurate kickers in NFL history and a guy who, until this year at least, was the undisputed master of Heinz Field.
But the Steelers were tired of Reed's off-field shenanigans (hopefully Sheetz has extra security in the bathrooms tonight as Reed deals with his release), his contract dispute (during which he accused the Steelers owners and personnel heads of lying to him), and his awful excuses for missed kicks.
Will he remain unemployed long? Probably not. Someone will decide they can do better with Reed than with their current kicker. He might even end up in Suisham's old Dallas duds. Stranger things have happened.
When is the savior not a savior? When he's running for his life.
That's Ben Roethlisberger's problem right now. He's spending way too much time trying not to die behind a decimated offensive line and can't make enough of his usual brand of plays to keep the Steelers from falling apart.
It's been the spooky music playing under the team's performances for a couple of weeks. Losing Max Starks just kind of brought it out into the open.
Against the Patriots, the Steelers offense tallied the following problems:
1. Too many dropped passes (including two dropped touchdowns);
2. Jonathan Scott was a turnstile at left tackle, which crippled the running game and seriously damaged the passing efficiency;
3. Too many predictable sequences of run, run, pass;
4. No plays of any substance until the fourth quarter (otherwise known as "when it was too late to matter").
The first problem can partially be attributed to the loss of Hines Ward to a concussion. He'd likely have made the adjustments on one of those touchdown drops. But the fact is that if Ben Roethlisberger gets the ball to a receiver, it's becoming a risky bet that the receiver catches the pass.
The left tackle problem is the most essential. Trai Essex is my pick to replace Starks there. Doug Legursky would then slide into the right guard spot. The return of Chris Kemoeatu would only help as well.
The sequencing of the offense is due to Bruce Arians and his stubborn, short-sighted offensive coordination. He's never been the most adept play-caller. Against a schemer like Bill Belichick (and every elite AFC team has a scheming head coach), he's in huge trouble. That showed up big against the Patriots.
The lack of big plays is a concern. While steady offense would likely have won the day, the Steelers couldn't even manage that. There was no rhythm to their system until late, when New England assumed a total prevent defense.
Primary Secondary Concerns
The most disturbing thing that I saw on Sunday night was Dick LeBeau abandoning the blitz to drop eight men into coverage so that the Steelers' pitiful secondary could get some help.
First of all, that's a terrible idea. A hundred men in full Crusader armor couldn't make that secondary look strong. Four linebackers who are used to killing quarterbacks certainly doesn't fit the bill either.
The secondary has been bad all season and, in a larger sense, for almost an eternity.
The Steelers haven't had a true shutdown corner since Rod Woodson left and haven't had a threatening safety since Troy Polamalu went out with an injury last season.
What? He's playing this year? Funny. I haven't seen him.
Polamalu's relative absence is killing this team. Oakland may not have good receivers to cover, but it doesn't seem to take good receivers to beat this group.
Ryan Clark is the lone playmaker and he's got to cover the middle.
The best solution in the short term is for the Steelers to blitz on virtually every down from every possible angle and try to throw quarterbacks off their reads. If they can do that, the secondary will go back to flying under the radar.
Polamalu making a guest appearance as a starter wouldn't hurt either. His play has been one of the season's big disappointments. The defense sorely needs him to step up and deliver.
In the long term, if the Steelers don't draft a corner in the first round of the draft, they are seriously misguided about what this team needs to be elite.
Just Winning, Baby, Against the Silver and Black
Here are five keys for beating the Raiders on Sunday. This is a must-win game now. The Steelers had a chance to assert control over the division, but now they are back in the de facto tie with Baltimore. Losing this game would be a major blow to their hopes and dreams.
A win won't cure everything that ails them, but it would be the first AFC contender they've beaten since Ben Roethlisberger's return.
Throw the Deep Ball
This should be a no-brainer with Mike Wallace terrorizing everyone this year. He's the fastest receiver in the NFL right now and he's got great hands. He's the team's offensive MVP so far and it's not even a close race.
But instead of going after teams early with a deep bomb (this tactic beat Tampa Bay in Week 3, by the way), the Steelers have elected to grind out drives. It's almost as if they are playing the game backwards by killing clock early and then trying to bomb teams late.
Loosen up the defense by pumping a few deep passes to Wallace and the still-shifty Antwaan Randle El early in the game. Even if they aren't caught, Rashard Mendenhall will have more running room than he normally gets because teams will have to guard against a longer field.
Do you know what else it does? It keeps teams from blitzing because, when you blitz, you have to leave holes in the coverage scheme. Slowing the blitz can only make the team's patchwork offensive line perform better.
The Oakland Raiders do not have what you'd call a real scary offense. They're steady. They're also very susceptible to the things that the Steelers do well defensively.
Their line has been solid, but a flurry of blitzes by linebackers James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons would likely get Jason Campbell to make some mistakes. The biggest failing against the Patriots was the inability to pressure Tom Brady. That's likely to be fixed against Oakland.
The only signature threat in Oakland's offense is Darren McFadden, so stopping him is a priority. Putting Oakland in an early hole and playing their usual brand of run defense should accomplish that task. If you bottle up McFadden, you beat Oakland.
The Steelers have already eaten the money they paid to Jeff Reed this year in his franchise-tag contract. They won't bat an eye at a league-minimum offer to their new kicker if he struggles.
If Suisham can represent an upgrade over Reed, then the Steelers may have fewer worries about the times they can't get it into the end zone.
A bigger concern might be the kickoffs. Jeff Reed's kickoffs were consistently excellent all year. If Suisham can't continue that, it will put more pressure on the Pittsburgh defense by putting it on a shorter field.
Avoiding the Injury Bug
It's a shame there isn't a vaccination against injuries. The Steelers could use it. With injuries to Hines Ward and Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers have a scant number of healthy starters. Their lack of depth as some key positions is being exposed and costing them badly in the win column.
The team can't afford another injury on defense or along the offensive line. They also need to keep key players like Ward and Rashard Mendenhall healthy. Also, the health of Ben Roethlisberger is essential. The first four games were nice, but it's highly unlikely the team could replicate that late in the season and in the playoffs.
Find a Left Tackle
If the Steelers can get a decent lead against Oakland, they should start auditions for left tackle. Give Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, Chris Scott and even Tony Hills a few snaps each and see if anyone sticks. Jonathan Scott failed in his big moment, so it's time to see what else the team has behind the lost Max Starks.
My money is on Essex because he can be replaced at guard and he's already got experience on the blind side. There's no help on the free agent market and not much else on the roster, so it might be Essex or bust.
Avoiding the Panic Button...For Now
The big thing to remember is that there is still a lot of football left to be played.
Cutting Jeff Reed reinforces the message that players are held accountable for their performance on and off the field. As one of the longest-tenured players on the roster, his release was certainly not a simple decision.
It also means that this team wants to win this year.
It's easy to look at all that's gone wrong with the Patriots game and think that the alarms are going off and the lights are flashing, but it's not necessary to panic yet.
The Steelers have clear issues and you have to believe that Mike Tomlin is addressing them as best he can. The only thing that they can't fix easily is the injury situation. Every team has to survive it, so it's on the Steelers to cope with it as best they can.
I predicted last week that the Steelers would lose two more games, one of them being that Patriots game. That doesn't make it easier, but it puts it in perspective. If the team can rebound and rediscover its offensive and defensive identity, they can finish 13-3 or 12-4. Either record would likely win the division and put them high in the playoff seeding.
It's not time to panic yet. It's not even close to time. If they lose next week to Oakland and then lay another egg in Buffalo, then it's time to run for the hills. For now, everyone needs to take a deep breath and remember that we're just barely halfway home.