Wednesday, January 9, 2008

End of the Year Reflections, Part 2

This season can be defined by the performance of the Steelers’ defense. Over the first twelve games, the team produced a 9-3 record and dominated on defense. That 9-3 record could easily have been 11-1 or 12-0 as the defense played well enough to win in both games against the Cardinals and the Jets. In the teams last four games, the Steelers’ defense became the team’s biggest weakness. The Steelers could not stop the Patriots from passing, the Jaguars and Ravens from running, and even the Rams from moving the ball. They also could no longer pressure the quarterback. This breakdown coincided with the loss of Aaron Smith, and proved just how valuable he is to this team.

What makes the Steelers such a great franchise is the team’s commitment to defense. They had that swagger back in the first three-quarters of the season. The team must get that back to go deeper in the playoffs next year. Here’s my position-by-position breakdown, grades, and predictions. I’ll also throw special teams in here and that review won’t be very flattering.

Defensive Line: This group went from playing great to bad at the snap of your fingers or more likely the snap of Aaron Smith’s bicep muscle. I thought there was a lack of depth on the defensive line to start the season, but that the team could overcome it with their starting talent. Other than Chris Hoke at backup NT, the Steelers really did not have any capable backups for either Smith or Brett Keisel. We all know what happened to this unit when Smith went down. Some have said that Casey Hampton had a sub par year, but his job is to clog the middle for the linebackers and defensive ends to make plays. Maybe he could have done more, but his job will never get attention unless he makes some plays.

The starters here are solid, but the team needs more depth. A late round pick must be spent on a defensive lineman and the Steelers should also look to bring in some free agents. This position is nowhere near in as much need as the offensive line, but it does need to be addressed.

When Smith was in the line up, this unit got an A. Opposing teams could not run on the Steelers and became completely one-dimensional. Without Smith, the grade went down to an F, as the Steelers suddenly couldn’t stop anybody.

Linebackers: The Steelers’ tradition is built on its linebacking corp. This group performed well for much of the year and then seemed to lose its focus in the last four games. In the first 12 games, the pressure on opposing quarterbacks was relentless and it seemed the Steelers linebackers never missed a tackle. That all fell apart in the last four games. The positives were that James Harrison emerged as a big time player, and James Farrior and Larry Foote played great in the middle. The negatives were that Clark Haggans continued to slip, and that the two top rookies, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley spent too much time on the injury list.

Look for Woodley to replace unrestricted free agent, Haggans, on the outside next year. When healthy, Woodley was a disruptive force and showed that in the playoff game. Timmons needs to show more, but my gut tells me he will play a big role on the team next year as a situational pass rusher and backup outside LB. The team should look at drafting an inside linebacker in the later rounds as Farrior and Foote are getting older.

Overall grade for the linebackers is a B-minus. It would’ve been higher if they sustained their high level of play that was displayed in the early season.

Defensive Backs: This is a group that really came together this season. Except for the debacle against the Patsy’rots, this unit played well. The one knock on them can be their lack of interceptions. Ike Taylor rebounded nicely from a bad season last year. Deshea Townsend continues to play well. Anthony Smith was having a good season until the Patsies exposed him. Darren McFadden and Troy Polamalu spent too much time on the injury list, but did play well when healthy. And, rookie William Gay proved to be good late round pick. This unit will be better next year as they will be healthy again.

Not too much tinkering to do here, but they may want to add a little more safety depth. It will be good to get Ryan Clark back, but they may want to add another low-budget insurance policy player to the mix. Overall grade for the DBs is a B.

Special Teams: Jeff Reed was great. He only missed two kicks all year, one from 45 and the other from 65 (yes, they tried a field goal from 65). Daniel Sepulveda was great at putting the ball inside the 20, but when he needed to make some big punts he didn’t come through. He was an upgrade from last year and is a superior athlete as a punter. He will be one of the top punters in the league with a little more consistency.

Now, the kick coverage teams were just abysmal. Every year, the Steelers stink on covering kicks and it comes back to haunt them. They lost to the Cardinals and then to Jaguars in the playoff because of kick returns, and continued all season to give other teams good field position. Changes are made, new coaches are brought in, starters are put on coverage teams, and it still doesn’t work. This problem needs to be fixed and fast.

For special teams’ grades, I’m breaking the unit down. Reed gets an A-minus as he could get his kickoffs a little deeper. Sepulveda gets a B-minus. The kick coverage teams get an F.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

End of the Year Reflections

The Steelers’ 2007 performance was about what I expected. I thought 11-5 would win the division and 10-6 would get them the wild card. However, I did think they would win their first round playoff game and they should’ve done that. Overall, I’m not disappointed by this season. I think this team has a lot of strengths and the weaknesses are visible enough that management knows what needs to be fixed.

Here are my observations, grades, and predictions position-by-position.

Coaching: Mike Tomlin will be the coach of this team for a long time. He has the mental make up and charisma the Steelers desire in a leader. However, I started to question the play calling on both offense and defense late in the season. That was highlighted when the team started to struggle. The gaffes in play calling were very evident in the Jacksonville playoff game. The defensive game plan worked well for the most part until the late game breakdown on Garrard’s critical fourth down run. I also will not question the decisions to go for two points three times, including going for it from the twelve yard line. What I seriously question is the offensive play calling on the Steelers last offensive possession. The team had been shredding the Jaguars throughout the second half and then they suddenly go conservative. With 3:30 left and the Jaguars holding all three timeouts, the Steelers had to get at least one first down. So, why did they go so conservative when Heath Miller and Hines Ward were consistently open for at least five yards on every play? I did not understand that decision; too much time was left on the clock.

Bruce Arians and Dick Lebeau both handled the offense and defense fairly well throughout the year. Offensively, I like where this team is going when we have all of our weapons. The big problem was the failure of the offensive line and Ben refusing to throw the ball away (more on that coming). Defensively, the Steelers started off the year so well, but started to have big problems at the end of the year. They righted the ship and played well enough to win in the Jacksonville game, despite a few breakdowns. Aaron Smith was a big loss and showed just how valuable he is, as sacks went down and they had trouble stopping the run. This group will be fine next year and may even improve with some changes.

Now the big problem, special teams. Will the Steelers ever get this right? Jeff Reed was great. Sepulveda was good and should improve. Kick coverage and the kick return teams continue to stink. I don’t know what the problem here is, but every year (playoffs included) there are major issues. Tomlin knew this coming in and it still couldn’t get fixed. I think we’ll see the special teams coaches fired soon.

Overall grade for the coaches is a C-minus. Tomlin and the staff must learn from this year’s mistakes and get better. They must also fix the offensive line and special teams as this team will not win without those issues taken care of.

Quarterback: Most of the questions about this position were answered by the great performance of Ben Roethlisberger. He needed to prove he could lead this team and perform at high level. He did both. My only criticism of him is that he needs to make better decisions when he is pressured. He needs to know when to throw the ball away to avoid drive-killing sacks. I know he likes to hold onto the ball as long as possible to make plays, but he must know that he can’t always do it all.

My quarterback grade is a B-plus. Look for the Steelers to lock up Ben long term. He is now one of the top five QB’s in the NFL.

Running Back: Willie Parker was having a very good year until he broke his leg and he probably would’ve won the NFL rushing title. Davenport is a more than capable backup, but isn’t the short yardage specialist the Steelers were hoping for. I think Dan Kreider’s Steeler career is over. The team will go cheaper here and keep Carey Davis. Gary Russell may be a decent future back. However, the team needs to find that power back to complement Parker, one that can get that all-important yard or two.

The good news is that Parker’s injury is not serious and the unexpected rest may actually help him. The team will look hard for that power back on draft weekend and may pick up a backup fullback too. My RB grade is a B-minus. I was hoping for a little more consistent production.

Wide Receiver: When all of the Steelers WRs are healthy, this is a very talented group. Ward had his typical solid season, but got hurt. Santonio Holmes proved he is a big time threat, but he also got hurt. Nate Washington got better as the year went on and seemed to overcome his problem dropping passes. The team even got Cedric Wilson more involved and he performed well as the number four guy.

What the team needs at this position is a big receiver they can utilize in the red zone. I think Willie Reid has now worn out his welcome. He didn’t make enough plays on offense and did nothing to help the team as kick returner. The team will need a little more depth here. My WR grade is a B

Tight End: The Steelers are all set here. Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth played very well. Miller is a big time threat and Spaeth is great in the red zone. I doubt Jerame Tuman will be back as they will probably bring in a younger player. I give the TEs an A.

Offensive Line: Yuck!!! This group never really came together. I won’t put all of the sacks on them as Ben’s decision making led to at least ten of those, but this group was awful. Yes, there were injuries, but the team cannot use that excuse. This is actually the position that worries me the most going into next season. The team’s best offensive lineman, Alan Faneca, will probably not be coming back. Max Starks may also not be resigned. Marvel Smith now has a back problem. There are some decent young players, but the Steelers need a good OL to succeed.

The biggest disappointment this year was the center, Sean Mahan. The Steelers pride themselves on stability at the center position and Mahan was terrible. The only big free agent signing the Steelers made and it proved to be a bad decision. The team must find a new center. It’s time for the Steelers to open up the wallet for free agent offensive linemen and draft wisely at this position.

I’d love to give this group and F, but the offense was still relatively productive despite its collective failure. My grade is a D-minus.

That’s enough for today. I’ll analyze the defense and special teams in my next entry.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Playoff Expectations

10-6 or 16-0… It doesn’t matter now because every team is 0-0. So, does that mean the Steelers have a chance. It all depends upon how they will play on defense.

The Steelers number one ranked defense has not looked so good as of late. Running teams have run on them and passing teams have passed on them too. They have not been able to consistently make the necessary plays to stop teams when they need to, especially on critical third downs. The team needs to get back to the basics. Against Jacksonville, they cannot allow Fred Taylor to run wild again. Let David Garrard try to beat them through the air. He is not playoff tested and he can make mistakes.

If the Steelers defense cannot get its swagger back, the season will end on Saturday night. Even with Willie Parker, Marvel Smith, and Max Starks out, the Steelers offense is still very dangerous. Roethlisberger has now established himself as an elite NFL quarterback and can carry this offense. The team has enough weapons to score points on any team. However, they need to stop the other team.

I attended the last game against Jacksonville and what I saw was a slow defense that day. Roethlisberger led the team back late and had the momentum in their favor. All they needed to do was make a late stop and get the ball back. The defense failed at the most critical time. Taylor and Jones-Drew just ran right through the Steelers’ defense. It was tough to watch because that’s exactly how the Steelers usually do it.

If the defense can play at that high level again, this team can beat anybody. It is now Tomlin’s time to show us that he can get this team motivated. All of us Steeler fans would love a rematch with the Patsy’rots. Nothing would be sweeter than knocking them out and making their season a failure. First, lets get back to Steeler football and beat Jacksonville, show us that we can believe.