From 2004-10, the Steelers won two world titles, played in a third Super Bowl, and posted a franchise-best 15-1 regular-season record in 2004 only to lose to a great New England squad that literally cheated (videotape gate) to gain an advantage in the AFC Championship game.
Unfortunately, per many NFL talking-heads, that super era that was one just drive away from qualifying as a dynasty abruptly ended on Sunday during Baltimore’s 35-7 dismantling of visiting Pittsburgh in every facet of the game. Most outspoken among the critics was Warren Sapp, who said afterward the Steelers were “old, slow, and it’s over.”
But haven’t we been down this road before? Pittsburgh was a single scoring drive away from winning a seventh Super Bowl just seven months ago after a 2010 season which saw the Steelers lead the league in eight different defensive categories despite having the second oldest starting defensive lineup and the oldest two-deep defensive depth chart in the NFL.
Yes, the Steelers’ defense is old, and several players are past their prime. The 2010 defense was not as good as the 2008 defense, and the 2011 defense will be worse. But entire units – let alone franchises– do not go from the Super Bowl one season and a consistent winner for nearly a decade to the retirement home a few months later.
Moreover, the Steelers’ biggest weaknesses have little to do with old age and instead remain the offensive line and cornerbacks not named Ike Taylor. Starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu (28) and starting cornerback Bryant McFadden (29) are both questionable for Sunday’s game against the Seahawks due to injuries.
Assuming that Kemoeatu does not play and is replaced in the starting line-up by Ramon Foster, the Steelers’ offensive line will have an average age of 24.6 years, with no starter older than 28. William Gay, 26, would likely move into McFadden’s role as the No. 2 cornerback, with 25-year-old Keenan Lewis rotating in as an outside cornerback when the Steelers employ a nickel defense.
The strength at corner remains 31-year-old Ike Taylor who improves every year and completely shut down Lee Evans last week without a catch despite covering the speedster in man-to-man press coverage for much of the game.
Like almost all of his teammates, defensive end Brett Keisel did not play well on Sunday. But the 10-year veteran is coming off his finest season and first Pro Bowl selection. Franchise safety Troy Polamalu, 30, has aged and is a step slower, but he still was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
And Sapp’s ranting about how his 13-year-old child could cover Hines Ward because he is slow was ridiculous for two reasons. First, as someone who actually guarded Ward in intramural basketball in college, I can verify that he has never been fast, but yet Ward is closing in on 1000 career catches in a Hall of Fame career and regularly gets open against faster defenders.
Second, Ward had five catches for 67 yards against Baltimore, including a 31-yard reception that was the Steelers’ longest play from scrimmage. You cannot tally 31 yards on any play against an NFL defense (let alone the Ravens) if you are so slow that Warren Sapp’s 13-year-old daughter can cover you.
Lesson Learned From 2009
No Steelers’ season in recent memory was more disappointing than 2009 when defending champion Pittsburgh opened the season with an impressive 6-2 mark against the tougher half of what was not a difficult schedule. Pittsburgh, however, collapsed in the second half of the season, embarking on a five-game losing streak that included setbacks to three of the worst teams in the NFL, while seemingly discovering new ways to lose each week, highlighted by the statistically worst kickoff-coverage unit of the Super Bowl era.
Although they rallied to win their final three games, the Steelers’ playoff chances that season essentially ended in the last of those five losses, a humiliating 13-6 defeat on Thursday night primetime to a Cleveland squad that entered that game with an overall record of 1-11 and riding a 12-game losing streak to Pittsburgh.
Less than three days later, the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette, the most experienced and probably the most respected of all Steelers’ reporters, essentially wrote an obituary for not only the 2009 squad, but the Steelers of this era. Bouchette cited the Steelers’ age on defense as the primary problem: “The problem is the decline in play on defense combined with their getting old. Another year would not make the same group a better defense than it has been this season. The other problem is there are few replacements on the roster.”
Bouchette’s argument seemed convincing. The 2009 Steelers’ had the oldest starting and second-team defense in the NFL. Moreover, a defense that was a historically dominant unit in 2008, slipped to 12th in the NFL in scoring defense and 16th in pass defense in 2009 after leading the league in both categories in 2008.
But Bouchette had prematurely written these vets off. With essentially the same defensive lineup in 2010, the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl after leading the league in scoring defense.
Age Is Not A Concern, But the Steelers Do Have a Few Injury and Personnel Problems
Baltimore may well surpass the Steelers and win the AFC North this year, and the Steelers undoubtedly are now more of a longshot to win a seventh Super Bowl title after losing offensive tackle Willie Colon to a season-ending triceps injury against the Ravens.
I suffered through re-watching the Ravens debacle on NFL Shortcuts this week. While this was a thorough and complete dismantling the type that most of these Steelers had never experienced in the NFL, the tape was not as horrendous as watching the actual game.
Obviously seven turnovers and Ben Roethlisberger’s worst performance since 2006 were huge issues. But the major problem – and this almost never happens – was the Steelers were overwhelmingly out-coached and out-schemed by the Ravens, with the greatest mismatch being Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron over Pittsburgh legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who had owned the Ravens throughout his career
Cameron essentially used parts of his playbook that had worked before against the Steelers (getting Ray Rice the football in space, and exploiting Pittsburgh cornerbacks McFadden and Gay), and then added the use of two tight-end sets in crossing routes over the middle that the Patriots had employed often to carve up LeBeau’s secondary for 39 points and 350 passing yards at Heinz Field in 2010.
What was more surprising and appalling was the Ravens’ tallying 170 yards on the ground against a Steelers’ run defense that in 2010 yielded only 62.8 yards per game, the third best in NFL history since the merger in 1970.
But a review of the film showed Baltimore had six rushing plays where every Raven offensive player effectively blocked their opponent beyond what is a good block. Give Baltimore credit, even if its offensive line was occasionally chop-blocking.
Still, I would be shocked if any team – including Baltimore – can emulate that type of rushing success against the Steelers this season, and do not expect more than a few teams to even approach a 100 yards.
With top passing offenses becoming more prolific throughout the NFL and the Steelers’ No. 2 and No. 3 corners still well below-average, elite quarterbacks who receive good protection will pick apart the Steelers just as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees did in 2010. But there are very few elite quarterbacks in the NFL.
A bigger concern from the Ravens game was the Steelers’ inability to generate any pass rush against what was essentially a makeshift Baltimore offensive line. If that facet does not improve, the Steelers are done as a Super Bowl contender this fall, but my guess is that LeBeau will figure out ways to pressure the quarterback against the few opponents who can effectively block Pittsburgh’s defenders man-on-man. A fully healthy James Harrison would essentially fix this problem, and LaMarr Woodley (who was dominated by Michael Oher on Sunday minus one meaingless sack late in the game) is always at his best in the playoffs.
Moreover, one of the reasons Pittsburgh returned to dominance in 2010 was a balanced and improved offense. After being the worst statistical rushing offense among Super Bowl champions in 2008, the Steelers ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing for yards per game last fall, as Reshard Mendenhall often ran behind right tackle Flozell Adams on successful rushing plays.
Almost all of the Steelers’ rushing success in 2009 came on plays when they ran behind right tackle Colon. The same held true against Baltimore when Pittsburgh tallied 66 rushing yards, with almost all of their limited success running behind Colon in the first half.
Now, the Steelers have not always relied on running behind right tackle. In fact, they generally ran to the left side when Alan Faneca was dominating opponents for a decade from 1998-2007. The new concern, however, is that Pittsburgh has no dominating blockers to run behind with the loss of Colon. If the run game is negated, the team becomes one-dimensional, and the pass-blocking weaknesses of the offensive line and Roethlisberger’s tendencies to make ill-advised throws would both be magnified and exploited.
Even if that transpires and the defense slips compared to previous years, this remains a playoff team for five primary reasons. First, the Steelers have a franchise quarterback and a potent receiving corps, a combo that gives them a chance to win close games. Second, the defense will keep Pittsburgh competitive against most decent opponents and dominate many bad teams. Third, this is a deep and talented roster full of veterans used to winning. Fourth, the Steelers’ schedule was rated as the fourth easiest in the league before the season.
Finally, for those who think the Steelers are finished, who exactly from the AFC do you think will take their spot in the playoffs this year? New England, Baltimore, the Jets, San Diego, Houston, and…and…and Buffalo? The Bills certainly were impressive in their shellacking at Kansas City last week, but I am not buying Buffalo as a playoff contender. In fact, teams 7-16 this year are as bad as they have been in the AFC. In other words, if the Steelers win nine games, they are likely going to the playoffs and would be a team other squads do not want to face.
But whereas most objective individuals now have to make Baltimore the favorite in the AFC North, the Steelers can easily win this division and still could end up in the Super Bowl, so long as they get a first-round bye in the playoffs and do not face the Patriots along the way.
And if they do no meet those goals, it will not because they got old all of the sudden after their old team made the Super Bowl last year. My bet is that “old, slow” team is about to lay an old-fashion ass-whipping on the visiting Seahawks.