The 2010 Steelers Are Very Good, But Are they Super Bowl Material?

No logical Pittsburgh fan could be upset with the Steelers’ 3-1 start to the 2010 season without suspended franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will be back in the starting lineup in two weeks against Cleveland following a bye this week.

Roethlisberger’s return will undoubtedly lift a stagnant passing game, but are the Steelers good enough to win a loaded AFC that currently has 13 of 16 teams at or above .500 and looks like a strong bet to have all six playoff teams tally 11 regular-season wins or more?

The short answer is yes, with a caveat – so long as Troy Polamalu, Roethlisberger, and Rashard Mendendhall all stay healthy, Pittsburgh has the potential to beat any team on any field in the NFL on any week, and would be a formidable playoff foe if not the outright Super Bowl favorite.

Lose Mendenhall, though, and an improved running game would suffer greatly. The Steelers’ may still be playoff-caliber, but not Super Bowl-caliber with Isaac Redman at tailback backed up by Mewelde Moore. That duo would not scare any playoff team in the AFC other than the Colts, who can’t stop any opponent’s rushing attack and are currently playing like Loyola Marymount basketball when Paul Westhead was coach.

Lose Polamalu and the season is done. Lose Roethlisberger late and this team may still squeak into the playoffs but would be out in the wild-card round.

However, even with all three healthy, I am not so sure this is the best team in the AFC or even the AFC North. Yes, the Steelers beat the Ravens last Sunday had Roethlisberger merely been arrested and convicted of DUI, and/or assault and battery instead of receiving baseless allegations related to a bathroom hook-up that resulted in no arrests or charges.

Evidently, the amount of sensationalistic media attention an alleged act triggers suspensions in an absurd, unwritten and inconsistent NFL Code of Conduct Policy in which Commissioner Roger Goodell serves as judge, jury, appellate court and executioner.

But it should be noted the Ravens were without superstar safety Ed Reed, who should return after six weeks, and stud tailback Ray Rice was limited due to injury. The addition of Anquan Boldin, coupled with the continued maturation of Joe Flacco has made the Ravens’ offense scary.

Yes, I know Baltimore has only scored 10, 10, 17 and 24 points respectively through four games this season. However, three of those games came against the Jets, Bengals and Steelers, who I believe join the Ravens and Vikings among the five best defenses in the NFL.

The Steelers can still win the AFC North over the Ravens but there are several areas of concern besides potential injuries.

1.    When plays break down will Roethlisberger be able to create first downs like he has in the past? Please remember that the Steelers essentially gave away their best playmaker in Santonio Holmes for free to the Jets this offseason and he was both the Steelers’ marquee weapon in crunch time and also Roethlisberger’s favorite target when plays turned into sandlot football.

2.    Can the offensive line continue to improve? This line, while still far from a strength, has been much better than expected. How they progress or regress as the season goes along will determine the offense’s fate. Flozell Adams should continue to improve as a right tackle, but can his 35-year-old body hold up throughout the season?

3.    Considering the WRs in the AFC, can the Steelers win another Super Bowl with Bryant McFadden as No. 2 CB, particularly if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau continues to keep his starting corners from switching sides of the field to allow Steelers’ No. 1 corner Ike Taylor to cover the opposition’s No. 1 receiver?

I have zero concerns about the Steelers’ talented, experienced and deep defensive front seven, which is easily the best in football against the run and one of the best in generating a pass rush, even though James Harrison is seemingly held on every other play and rarely gets a flag.

On a side note, it also doesn’t help Harrison’s pass rush when the refs somehow allowed Ravens’ left tackle Michael Oher to get away with false starts repeatedly in the second half of Sunday’s game. I know he has a great life story that resulted in a sweet Disney movie that makes White Southerners feel better about themselves, but that is no reason to allow Oher to be the only offensive tackle in the league who continually gets away with false starting.

Switching back to McFadden, his return has clearly provided an upgrade at LCB over William Gay and Gay has been playing very well at nickel back, as he did in a 2008 season when the same CB rotation Pittsburgh has now helped the team win a Super Bowl with one of the best defenses in modern NFL history.

But McFadden was awful and flat-out scared on the Ravens’ winning drive. First, with time an issue, he played too soft and inexcusably gave up the sideline on two completions for 20 yards to open the drive.

McFadden yielding the game-winning TD to T.J. Houshmandzadeh is more excusable since it came on a Steelers’ blitz. But it is disconcerning that McFadden allowed Houshmandzadeh to beat him so easily to the inside (creating an easier throw and catch).

Do not misinterpret. I like BMac and loved re-acquiring him from the Cards this off-season. He is smart, outstanding in run support, great in the locker room, and a decent fit at corner in LeBeau’s mostly zone-based scheme.

However, there are not five other teams in the league McFadden could start for, evident by the paltry interest he generated in free agency two years ago and the Cards unloading him essentially just to move up from a 6th- to a 5th-round pick after his one disastrous campaign in Arizona.

Cornerback and offensive line were clearly the Steelers’ top two needs entering the draft in that order. That being said, Pittsburgh definitely made the right moves in drafting stud rookie center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round and acquiring McFadden rather than drafting Kyle Wilson – the top remaining corner on the board in the first round when Pittsburgh drafted – and addressing the offensive line later in the draft.

Wilson did not fit Pittsburgh’s scheme or locker-room, and has been victimized often as the Jets’ nickel back. Moreover, it is unlikely that any offensive linemen taken after the first round by the Steelers would be contributing right now, and none would have the impact of Pouncey.

4.    Can Jeff Reed break out of his early-season funk and return to being a reliable, clutch kicker who the Steelers made their franchise player this offseason?

The Steelers’ special-teams coverage units were among the worst in NFL history in 2009, tying a modern-era record by yielding five kickoff returns for TDs. Upgrading their coverage units was an offseason priority. The additions of veteran special-teams standouts Will Allen and Aranz Battle, as well as athletic rookie linebackers Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds have greatly improved this unit thus far (knock on wood).

Moreover, Reed, who was last in the NFL in kickoff-distance average last season, significantly improved his leg-strength, as he has already accounted for three touchbacks, tying his entire 2009 season total.

Unfortunately, he has missed four field-goal attempts in Heinz Field this season, which also tied his total of missed fields goals for the entire 2009 season regardless of stadium. He also missed only four total field-goal attempts in 2008 and just two in a brilliant 2007 campaign.

Reed is paid to make clutch kicks and field goals in Heinz Field. His meltdown in Chicago last year was an anomaly, although if he makes either one of those two relatively easy kicks, Pittsburgh beats the Bears, wins 10 games and goes to the playoffs.

You cannot blame him for missing a 49-yarder to the open end of Heinz Field on Sunday, but Skippy must revert to past form or the Steelers will not win the Super Bowl. This team is not an offensive juggernaut and must come away with points in the red zone.

The No. 1 reason Pittsburgh lost Sunday against the Ravens was because their defense twice forced turnovers and gave the Steelers’ offense the ball inside the Ravens’ 40 only to see Pittsburgh’s offense generate zero points off those two turnovers.

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  • eddie

    while i agree that the offense failed to score enough points off the turnover opportunities, i feel like the defense is getting a free pass here.

    make no mistake, the reason we lost that game was because:
    – the defense gave up 40yards
    – with less than a minute to go
    – against a team with no timeouts

    sure, the offense could have put the game away, but in the end the def was asked to stop a team that hadn’t been effective all day, and then proceeded to let them march down the field. i’m sorry, but this is just like the browns/ravens/chiefs defense from 2009.

    on the last play, you see clark and gay moving into position very very late, ike shrugs his arms like he doesn’t know what the play is, and troy and juan seem confused about where to lineup the DB’s.

    mcfadden screwed up, but i think there is more going on with that play… just like last year when we couldn’t get the defenses called correctly…

    my point is that the offense could have won that game, but more worrisome is that i saw defensive communication problems from 2009 showing up again.

    • Ted

      Eddie, I see your point, but the defense, IMHO, had made the stop to win the game if the offense could have just mustered one first down. Even without throwing the ball, the offense may well have gotten the first down had they not got two stupid, pre-snap, false-start penalties.

      I don’t think there is much similarity bw this defense and the one at the end of 2009. One similarity, though, and what I alluded to in the article, is that we do not have great cornerback play. I am at a loss why with a minute on the clock, McFadden was giving up so much cushion and also the sideline? That tells me he was not overly confident in his physical ability.

      However, considering the lack of offense with the exception of the Bucs’ game, I don’t see how we could of asked for much more than the defense, which overall has been playing brilliant this season. Oh, and they did make the stops to beat the Titans and Falcons at the end of the game, and the defense from the second-half of 09 would have lost both.

  • Anonymous

    You win as a team and lose as a team. Any of the following and the Steelers win:
    1. The offense gets that last first down.
    2. The defense stop the last Ravens drive.
    3. Reed makes his field goals.
    4. The offense scores a TD off of one of those turnovers.
    5. The defense doesn’t allow the Ravens’ long TD drive earlier in the game.
    6. The offense puts together one more long drive.
    7. The Ravens’ fumble earlier in the game is correctly rules a fumble.
    8. Any of the kick/punt returns goes the distance.
    And on and on.

    On the other hand, say the defense hold on that last drive and the Steelers win. Any of the following and they lose:
    1. The defense doesn’t hold the line on the fourth and goal.
    2. The offense doesn’t put together that scoring drive earlier in the game.
    3. Batch throws a pick 6.
    4. The Ravens return a kick for a TD.
    5. The defense fails to hold one time and the Ravens put together a scoring drive.

    Thousands of things happen every game that change its complection. You can’t just blame/credit the events that happened to be last. Any way you slice it, that was one very close football game. If they play again next week, with the same personnel, I think you have another one down to the wire where any little thing can end up being the difference. And that’s good football.

    • IsraelP

      Intropy, Ted didn’t blame “the events that happened to be last.” He correctly cited “the #1 reason” as the inability to take advantage of the two lovely turnovers in the third quarter.

  • Cols714

    The only thing I question was the defensive call on that last play. I understand going for the sack to end the game, but why would McFadden then bite on a pump fake? They really should have given up the underneath stuff. I know the prevent defense isn’t popular among fans, but it mostly works and it would’ve been nice to make the Ravens earn that final TD.

    In reality though, I’m thrilled with 3-1 and a stud QB coming back.

    • GlennW

      Absolutely right Cols. With 30+ seconds left, McFadden giving up the deep ball in single coverage was far worse than surrendering the intermediate stuff earlier. I had no problem with the “prevent defense” approach in that situation (with or without the blitz), and was still fairly confident in our defense at that point with the Ravens sitting on the 18-yard-line with no timeouts. The cardinal rule in such a situation is “protect the goal line”! B-Mac has his limitations, and both he and the coaching staff should know them. If you’re going to give something up, give up the yards. In the NFL it’s never easy actually crossing that goal line, or at least it shouldn’t be.

    • Anonymous

      When you are blitzing, the CBs operate on the presumption that the QB won’t have time to pump fake, so he is more likely to throw the quick out.

      • Cols714

        Understood, however with time running out and the Ravens without any timeouts, you really should keep the guy in front of you and try to make the tackle in bounds. No reason to go for a big play there.

  • B Meekins

    first time i read one of your blogs….loved it!

    but i agree. number one reason we lost the game sunday was because of the 2 failed attempts to score any points with the drive starting from the baltimore 27 and 33. the play calls following the turnover were 1st and 10 reverse, 2nd and 10 run, 3rd and 8 sack, and 1st and 10 fake reverse, 2nd and 10 run, 3rd and 8 pass (nearly picked off). the play calling has been absolutely terrible (minus the tampa bay game)

    ofcourse the defense shouldn’t have given up the touchdown to a team with no timeouts and 1:15 left, but they played well enough to not be in the situation in the first place.

    keep up the good work ted!

    • Ted

      Thanks for the kind words. I totally agree that being unable to score on either of those possessions was ultimately the No. 1 reason for the loss. That third-down sack on a drive that started well within field-goal range rivaled the score McFadden gave up at the end as the biggest play of the game.

      The play-calling, on those drives, was bad. Since we were in field-goal range, a draw play or having Charlie take a 3- or 5-step drop and throw a quick slant on third down would have been ideal. It may fall incomplete and you probably do not pick up the 8 yards, but you move even closer into Reed’s range instead of further away with a sack.

      Bruce Arians’ play-calling often frustrates me and his unwillingness to keep a pure FB on the 53-man roster even though he is increasingly using the position is absurd, bc D.J. Johnson is not a FB and has to many bad or missed blocks when he lines up in I-formation.

      However, I disagree with you, because I think Arians has done an overall decent job this year with his play-calling thus far. He has rightly committed to the run game more than the past and it has opened more in the second half as defenses wear down (see Atlanta game). Moreover, wouldn’t you be scared to throw the out patterns with Dixon or many passes into tight areas with Batch? Both should have a combined 5-6 more interceptions and this team would be 1-3 if those balls were caught.

      Arians called very conservative gameplans (against his nature) due to our QB situation and makeshift offensive lines, and because he wisely knew or was told just not to turn the ball over with the way the defense is playing.

      Let’s wait to judge him untilr a few games after Ben comes back. We will need to score often to have any chance of winning at New Orleans. Those are the games where Arians’ playcalling should be judged.

      Of all my complaints about the 09 Steelers, Arians’ playcalling would rank very low on the list, with the exception of the game at Cleveland in freezing temperature when he refused to run the football. Still, we had a 4,000-yard passer, a 1000-yard rusher and a pair of 1000-yard receivers, so he deserves a good deal of credit.

      • Cols714

        Yep. He also was the OC of a Super Bowl winning team in 2008.

        I don’t know what Arians would have to do to stop being criticized.

        • B Meekins

          i dont think BA is a terrible coach, i just think he is too conservative sometimes causing alot of games to be really close that shouldn’t be. and therefore if a game is close, we have a chance in the end to lose it. (see 2009 season, sunday)

  • IsraelP

    And…howcum this DISQUS has to keep asking who I am? Very annoying.

  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    Very good analisys, yet again, but my opinion is that, even if we are done with the 1st quarter of the season, this is too soon to set the standard for the team going forward, and of course it has everything to do with Big Ben being out and about to return. He could set the league on fire with the current weapons that he has just as probable as the injuries to the Core Players could derail the season for good. One thing for sure, I do not fear any other team today, and that’s a big difference from other seasons, wwe have the makings of a contender…oh, and by the way, this is the longest bye week ever.

    • Ted

      I agree, J.C. In the past I have dreaded facing teams like NE and Indy in certain years, where I knew we would have to play very well and they make mistakes for us to win. As long as we are healthy this year, I think we beat any team in the NFL if we play are A game, which was also how I felt in 2008.

      Moreover, there is not a dominant, offensive juggernaut this year like the Pats or Colts in years past. Yes, Indy’s offense could carve our defense up, but I think we could easily outscore them.

  • RJ

    Thanks for this post. I thought I was the only one who noticed Oher jumping around in the second half.