Mike Tomlin is in his fourth season as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers’ 27-21 win over the Bengals on Sunday night resulted in the fourth consecutive season where a Tomlin-coached team has opened the first-half of the season with an impressive 6-2 record.
This is not as surprising as it seems, though, since Pittsburgh has a veteran-laden team and consistency within its coaching staff that together often combine for strong starts. However, like the previous three seasons, the Steelers’ ultimate success in 2010 will be contingent upon continued health of its aged roster.
In 2007, the Steelers looked like a strong Super Bowl contender at midseason. However, they wore down physically after Tomlin’s brutal training camp, but were more hindered by the season-ending loss of defensive end Aaron Smith and superstar safety Troy Polamalu either being sidelined or hindered throughout the second half of the season as well.
Pittsburgh limped into the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Unfortunately, the absence of Polomalu was too much to overcome as David Garrard literally ran over journeyman, reserve safety Tyrone Carter to lead the Jaguars to a 31-29 win at Heinz Field in an AFC Wild-Card game.
In 2008, the Steelers matched their strong start en route to finishing 12-4 despite playing what statistically was rated as one of the two toughest schedules in NFL regular-season history based on opponents’ W-L records from the previous season.
Tennessee earned the top seed in the AFC due to a 13-3 overall record, but many experts declared Pittsburgh the most complete team in the NFL. That came to fruition when the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl title.
Like every season, Pittsburgh did have some injuries in 2008. In hindsight, the biggest impact was losing rookie Rashard Mendenhall early in the year. By this point of his solid overall career, Willie Parker was a below-average starting tailback and Pittsburgh had the worst rushing attack of any Super Bowl winner.
However, the offense made enough plays due to the maturation of Ben Roethlisberger and emergence of Santonio Holmes as a difference-maker; but the true key to the team’s success was that one of the best defenses in modern NFL history stayed mostly healthy for the entire season.
In 2009, many experts proclaimed the Steelers as the top team in the NFL after a dominating win at Denver on Monday Night Football had the squad at 6-2 again. But season-ending injuries to Smith and Polamalu again resulted in the defense collapsing over a second-half of a season that featured a five-game losing streak. Despite the best passing attack in Pittsburgh history, this talented team finished a disappointing 9-7, scarred by losses to the Browns and Raiders, and the worst kickoff-coverage unit in modern NFL history.
In 2010, Smith has already been lost for an extended period again, although the team remains hopeful that he can return for the end of the season. But the key to this team’s fortunes will again rely on health. Yes, you can say that about every team in the NFL, but the Steelers have a recent history of injuries to its key players derailing strong starts and older players are statistically more likely to be injured than younger players.
Pittsburgh does have some serious weaknesses and thus should not be considered a great team at this point. Primary weaknesses include: (1) The offensive line is below average; (2) The No. 2 and No. 3 CBs are below average; (3) The receiving corps is missing the play-making of Holmes and lacks speed outside of Mike Wallace; (4) Jeff Reed has missed more field goals than any kicker in the NFL and is still below-average on kickoff length despite modest improvement in that area; (5) The lack of a true fullback on the roster hurts the team in short-yardage situations; and (6) Like 2009, the Steelers’ pass defense in the fourth quarter has been poor.
However, every team in the NFL has weaknesses right now. There is no great team in the NFL this year. Pittsburgh is as good as any other franchise right now and literally any team in the NFL this year can beat any other squad on any given week, with the exception of the Panthers and now the Cowboys.
Moreover, there are more reasons to be optimistic about the 2010 Steelers thus far compared to other years. Among them: (1) The Steelers special-teams coverage has been very good due to the return of Anthony Madison, and additions of players like Will Allen, Aranz Battle, Emmanuel Sanders and Jason Worilds; (2) The Steelers are deeper at almost every position area than in previous years; (3) Roethlisberger’s return gives the Steelers a chance to beat every opponent; (4) Mendenhall has evolved into an all-purpose back who is easily among the 10 best in the NFL; (5) The addition and continued improvement of rookie center Maurkice Pouncey gives Pittsburgh an above-average NFL offensive lineman and has mostly eradicated the problems the Steelers had against 3-4 NTs in recent seasons; (6) The run defense remains the best in the NFL despite injuries on the defensive line; and (7) After a poor 2009 season, corner Ike Taylor is having his finest NFL campaign and should receive his first Pro-Bowl invitation.
If Pittsburgh can stay mostly healthy (with Polomalu, Roethlisberger, Mendenhall, Pouncey and Wallace the most difficult to replace), I expect this team to win 11-12 games in the regular season and be a strong Super Bowl contender.
But if an aging team starts losing key players like 2007 and 2009, a second-half collapse could happen again. Regardless, the team should be commended for a sensational 6-2 start that I never thought realistic since Roethlisberger was suspended for the first half of the season and because the Steelers’ first eight opponents were a tougher slate than their last eight. This has been Tomlin’s best coaching campaign among his annual 6-2 starts.