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.

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