So long as safety Troy Polomalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger both stay healthy, Pittsburgh is a playoff-caliber team that can beat any opponent in the NFL on any given day.
However, the Steelers have three major weaknesses that make them beatable by many NFL teams and unlikely to win a seventh Super Bowl crown in a loaded AFC, where several teams are designed to exploit those three weaknesses All three areas were on display in a 20-10 loss Sunday at New Orleans and most prognosticators saw these as the reason why few picked Pittsburgh to even make the playoffs this year.
OFFENSIVE LINE IS BETTER COACHED BUT STILL LACKS TALENT
First, the Steelers’ offensive line is not good by any measure, even though Sean Kugler has proven to be a major upgrade as a coach, probably because he watches football film late night in the office instead of porn like his predecessor.
J.J. will provide a detailed breakdown later this week of how bad that line was in the first half on Sunday. But they were confused several times on blitz pick-up and occasionally beaten man-for-man, with ancient Flozell Adams at right tackle continuously having problems with speed rushers.
Adams was a great signee considering the Steelers’ other options at right tackle after Willie Colon was lost due to an off-season Achilles tear, but there are reasons why he was available on the eve of training camp and they were because he is old and slow. In contrast, Colon had evolved into one of the finest right tackles in the game prior to his injury.
Maurkice Pouncey has made the interior of the line much better, but left guard Chris Kemoetau is easily confused and struggles in pass protection, while neither Trai Essex or Doug Legursky are anywhere near NFL-starting caliber at right guard. Unfortunately, at least one has to start for Pittsburgh. Moreover, Max Starks, who at his best is an average starting left tackle, is evidently still feeling the effects of an ankle sprain suffered earlier in the year.
SUBPAR NO. 2 and NO. 3 CORNERBACKS WHO CANNOT PLAY MAN
After Ike Taylor, the Steelers do not have a cornerback on its roster who could start for more than one or two teams in the NFL. Like he did in 2005, 2007 and 2008, Taylor is again playing at a Pro Bowl-level and will hopefully make it this year since he is actually holding on to potential interceptions.
The return of Bryant McFadden and shifting William Gay back to the No. 3 corner undoubtedly improved the unit. But while McFadden is a great tackler and Gay has mostly played well this fall, both players are too slow and gave up way too much space in pass coverage against New Orleans.
All you need to know about McFadden is that J.J. and Ryan were very pleased with his play after he gave up 13 catches for 111 yards to the Falcons’ Roddy White in the season opener. McFadden never got beat deep that day, never missed a tackle and was obviously instructed to play soft on White. But he has to play soft on everyone or he gets beat crisply like he did by T.J. Houshmandzadeh on the Ravens’ game-winning TD over the Steelers earlier this year.
McFadden is a good fit for the Steelers’ defensive scheme much of the time. However, his inability to play any man-to-man coverage is why defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is justifiably being more conservative in his blitz packages this year.
In contrast, despite having nearly his entire unit of cornerbacks out with injuries or playing hurt, Saints defensive coordinator Greg Williams was more confident with essentially a secondary of safeties tonight than LeBeau was with his corners, which is why the Steelers rarely blitzed.
Pittsburgh entered tonight’s game with the 24th-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Now, Drew Brees is one of the best quaterbacks in the NFL. But Brees has struggled in recent weeks due to New Orleans’ complete lack of a rushing threat due to Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas both sidelined with injuries.
But Brees carved up Pittsburgh’s porous pass defense tonight, going 34-of-44 for 305 yards, including an absurd 20-for-22 in the second half. You simply cannot win when you let the opposing QB complete 91% of his passes in the second half, and most of those were in the direction of McFadden and Gay at corner, or simply finding seams short and over the middle against a soft Pittsburgh zone defense.
LACK OF SEPARATION SPEED IN THE RECEIVING CORPS
The first two weaknesses were obvious to any Steeler fan before the season. While the third is nowhere near as bad, it was evident tonight. Pittsburgh has the fastest receiver in the NFL in Mike Wallace, although he simply does not make enough receptions to be considered a No. 1 receiver, something the Steelers no longer have after essentially giving away Santonio Holmes to the Jets for a measly fifth-round pick this offseason.
I love Hines Ward and have long admired Antwaan Randle El. But combine those two with fumble-prone, tight end Heath Miller (which are usually the three who join Wallace on obvious passing downs), and you have the slowest trio in the NFL among any base 4-WR set.
All three are good at underneath routes, but none have separation speed. That was apparent tonight when Pittsburgh WRs could not break free of the cornerback-depleted Saints’ secondary throughout the first half before New Orleans’ defensive line could instill pressure on Roethlisberger.
If Pittsburgh had Colon and Holmes on its roster right now, this would be the best team in the NFL even though those two would not improve the CB play.
The offensive line would still not be great, but it would have two legitimate standouts in Colon and Pouncey. The receiving corps would be among the best in the NFL, with Ward handling short and underneath passes, Holmes lethal in the middle of the field and Wallace frightening on deep patterns.
Moreover, as bad as Pittsburgh’s secondary looked in the second half tonight, the defense still only yielded 20 points to Brees in New Orleans, and Taylor (interception) and McFadden (forced fumble) created turnovers that should have resulted in a Pittsburgh win.