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.