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.

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