Yes, the Steelers are 2-2 and the season is not lost, at least not yet. But most experts and fans will agree that record is misleading, because Pittsburgh was thoroughly and physically dominated by the two decent (not great) opponents it faced in Baltimore and Houston, and tallied its two wins against horrible squads that truly would have trouble scoring on what is a ridiculously good University of Alabama defense this fall.
Surprising to all, the 2011 Steelers appear to be nowhere near a Super Bowl caliber-squad and probably only have a decent shot at the postseason, because of a very favorable schedule, and the presence of a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger (assuming they can somehow keep him off injured reserve) and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Troy Polamalu, assuming he defies trends from recent years and stays healthy all season.
While Roethlisberger was horrendous in committing five turnovers in a week-1 loss at Baltimore and Polamalu has uncharacteristically missed some tackles, those two stalwarts join receiver Mike Wallace (100 receiving yards or more in 6 of his last 7 games and is now a true No. 1 WR) and corner Ike Taylor (yielded just 7 catches for 56 yards in 4 games despite covering opponent’s top WR in single-coverage each week) as the only four of the Steelers’ many above-average players who have played anywhere near their expected level this fall.
The rest of the team’s key players have under-achieved or been downright pathetic. Roethlisberger, in particular, deserves kudos for the toughness he has exhibited playing behind not only what will likely rank as the worst offensive line in the NFL for a third time in four years by Pro Football Focus, but may be the NFL’s worst overall starting offensive line since the Houston Texans’ expansion year in 2002.
That statement gains credibility when you consider that the Steelers’ line collectively cannot run-block (3.7 yards per carry and little surge even against smaller opponents), pass-block (tied for second worst in the league in giving up 14 sacks through 4 games, and almost any other starting QB in the league besides the ellusive and nimble Roethlisberger would have taken more sacks and already be on IR), lacks athleticism and even when everyone is healthy starts at least two players who could not do so for any other team in the NFL at their positions in left tackle Jonathan Scott and right guard Doug Legursky.
A common explanation is that the Steelers are again in a Super Bowl ‘hangover.’ It is true that no team has handled the prosperity from advancing to the Super Bowl the previous season worse than Pittsburgh in recent years. Over the past nine years, seven Super Bowl winners made the playoffs the next season. The two exceptions: the 2006 and 2009 Steelers, even though both appeared well-stocked for another title run each season.
Super Bowl hangovers are commonplace for runner-ups. Over the past decade, only two of 10 Super Bowl losers even made the postseason the following fall, with no runner-up going back to the Super Bowl since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
But the term Super Bowl hangover usually implies that a team lacks motivation or focus, often finding ways to lose to inferior opponents. The 2006 and 2009 Steelers definitely had all the ingredients of Super Bowl ‘hangover’ seasons, particularly 2006. However, the 2011 Steelers’ problems stem from being weak in the trenches, as their defense has had only a few mental breakdowns and the offensive line has mostly just been physically beaten across the board, especially on the outside.
2006: A Season to Forget for Pittsburgh Fans
During the 2006 regular-season, Bill Cowher’s heart was singing “Blue Sky,” North Carolina, regardless of his physical location. Cowher, in my opinion, was extremely under-rated as a coach by NFL experts and under-appreciated by some Pittsburgh fans. He eventually deserves enshrinement in Canton.
In hindsight, though, Cowher should have joined Jerome Bettis in retiring after Super Bowl XL. Cowher was regularly making trips to see his family in North Carolina during the 2006 season (personal travel is almost never done by NFL coaches during the season), although that was later justified by all his family went through with his wife’s cancer. That also helped explain his lack of fire during the season. Unfortunately his players responded with a lack of focus.
Cowher essentially blew his team’s 2006 playoff hopes by continuing to start Roethlisberger when he clearly was not physically or psychologically healthy early in the year following a tumultuous off-season that included a near-fatal motorcycle crash and an emergency appendectomy right after the preseason that caused him to miss the opener, a win over the Dolphins.
But Roethlisberger rushed back too soon and the team lost their next three games and six of the next seven, in large part due to his poor play and turnovers. Even after sustaining a bad concussion in a week No. 7 overtime loss to the Falcons, Roethlisberger played the next week at Oakland, throwing five interceptions, two of which were returned for TDs in a 20-13 loss to an abysmal Raiders’ squad that racked up 98 yards of total offense, including 17 passing yards in the game.
The Steelers could have inserted Hines Ward at quarterback that day, ran the ball every play and won due to defense, but yet Cowher refused to pull Roethlisberger. JJ and myself argued continuously during this stretch, with JJ insisting that you never bench a franchise quarterback. I said, “you damn sure do if he is injured and has his head on backward.” Moreover, I never said that Roethlisberger should be benched for the rest of the regular-season or not even start games when he was deemed healthy, but Cowher should have pulled him when his poor decision-making was almost solely costing his team wins against inferior opponents. JJ now contends that this experience helped Roethlisberger eventually become a better quarterback, who won a Super Bowl two years later. We will never know if his development would have been impeded through a benching, but Cowher not doing so probably cost a loaded team a berth in the playoffs later that season.
As bad as 2006 was, the Steelers railed to finish 8-8 and just missed making the playoffs in what was a very thin year for good AFC teams. Yank Roethlisberger earlier against Oakland and the Steelers were a playoff team.
But the 2006 season could not just be blamed on Cowher’s focus, or Roethlisberger’s head and injuries. Taylor, already the team’s best cornerback and a burgeoning star after 2005, lost all confidence, became a regular victim of Cowher’s scorn (even though he rarely showed it to others that fall) and eventually was benched.
Taylor’s psychological problems, combined with Polamalu missing games for the first time in his NFL career due to injuries, resulted in the Steelers’ pass defense often struggling, ranking just 20th in the NFL.
The 2006 Steelers were also lousy on special teams, and began having mental breakdowns on the offensive line, something that had rarely happened during Cowher’s first 15 seasons as head coach.
All of these factors combined easily equated to a Super Bowl hangover for a very talented Pittsburgh squad, evident by the Steelers – despite all their struggles – being the only NFL team to finish the 2006 regular season ranked among the league’s top nine in both total offense and total defense.
No Polamalu, No Chance for 2009 Steelers
It is a little harder to chalk up the Steelers’ 2009 struggles due to a Super Bowl hangover, particularly since the team opened the season with a 6-2 record against what was clearly the more difficult half of their schedule, culminated by a dominating second-half performance in a 28-10 MNF win at Denver, which resulted in many NFL experts dubbing Pittsburgh the best team in the NFL.
But then the unthinkable happened. Pittsburgh lost five straight, including losses to the three teams that finished with the three worst records in the AFC that year. Moreover, that losing streak featured seemingly a different type of breakdown each week.
Ironically, the 2009 Steelers’ offensive line was by far the team’s best since at least 2007, but that was not the case in an 18-12 loss to the Bengals that ignited the losing streak, as the Steelers’ line yielded four sacks and had constant problems in blitz pick-up.
The next week in a shocking 27-24 overtime loss, Pittsburgh outgained the Chiefs 463-206 in regulation yardage. But the Steelers opened the game by yielding a kickoff return for a TD for the fourth time in five games (a modern-era NFL record that may never be broken now that kickoffs have moved up), and then saw their defensive secondary and offensive line both collapse during the fourth quarter and overtime, the former of which could be attributed to Polamalu departing with a knee sprain that would sideline him for the rest of the season.
Due to a concussion sustained against the Chiefs, Roethlisberger also set out the next game, although that decision was not made until later in the week after he practiced, resulting in Ward publicly questioning his quarterback’s toughness. Despite making his first career start, Dennis Dixon and the Steelers both played well, before Dixon’s overtime interception resulted in a 20-17 road loss to a solid Baltimore squad.
The hangover effect was most prevalent in the final two games of the streak. A 27-24 loss to the Raiders was marred by a trio of fourth-quarter touchdown passes by journeyman quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, which marked the fifth time in six losses that the Steelers’ defense had blown a fourth-quarter lead. With Polamalu sidelined and Taylor seemingly dis-interested at times, the Steelers’ secondary could not get off the field on third-and-long against Oakland, which entered that game ranked 31st in passing offense.
Finally, the Steelers were inept again on special teams, and saw their potent offense shut down in a 13-6 loss on a freezing night at Cleveland, which in the process snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Steelers and won just its second game of the season in 13 tries.
Despite horrendous pass defense down the stretch, Pittsburgh rallied to win its final three games in 2009 to finish 9-7 and just missed earning a wild-card bid due to the NFL’s tie-breaking procedures.
However, take away that five-game hangover, and the 2009 Steelers were a loaded and efficient team. It is the only year in the history of the franchise when the Steelers had a 4000-yard passer (Roethlisberger), two 1000-yard receivers (Santonio Holmes, Ward), and a 1000-yard rusher (Reshard Mendenhall).
Even though tight ends had essentially been ignored in the Steelers’ passing game since Eric Green departed for for Miami via free agency after 1994, Heath Miller had a career-year in 2009 with 76 receptions. More important, 2009 was clearly the Steelers’ best offensive line over the past five years, in large part because Willie Colon had emerged as arguably the premier run-blocking right tackle in the NFL and Max Starks provided serviceable pass protection at left tackle.
And while the pass defense was abysmal after losing Polamalu, the Steelers still finished 2009 ranked No. 3 in run defense and No. 5 in total defense.
That was a talented team that was marred by piss-poor play at No. 2-3 cornerbacks, the loss of Polamalu to injury, a propensity to commit turnovers or get stupid penalties at ill-advised times, an uncharacteristic propensity of the defense to collapse in the fourth quarter, often in games that should have been put away much earlier, and the worst kickoff-coverage unit in modern NFL history.
It was a frustrating campaign for sure, but one in which Steelers’ fans never expected to lose any game, because the 2009 Steelers were good enough to beat any opponent and usually did when they did not beat themselves. They lost seven games by a total of 28 points, never being defeated by more than a touchdown. Moreover, they were never physically dominated by any opponent.
2011 Steelers Are Soft in the Trenches
Defensive Front Seven…WTH?
But that toughness in the trenches has been absent this year, and only delusional fans can feel the same way about the 2011 Steelers after seeing them blown out by the Ravens and beaten up by the Texans. The Steelers’ problems are not due to a lack of focus or even many breakdowns, but rather are primarily based off a lack of a talent on an abysmal offensive line and seemingly too many players looking old in their defensive front seven, which, in the process, has shown that the Steelers’ younger players in that group are not as good as fans thought or hoped.
The most shocking part of this season is just how bad the Steelers are in run defense, where the team ranks 22nd in the NFL in yielding 119.5 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry a year after giving up only 62.8 yards per game on the ground, the third best regular-season run defense of any team during the Super Bowl era.
It is unexplainable how a team can be so good against the run for so many years and then so bad so quickly. But make no mistake, this team has been awful against the run and opponents’ successes have not been flukes. Despite playing behind a makeshift and slightly below-average offensive line, the Ravens’ Ray Rice and Ricky Williams gashed the Steelers for 170 yards in week 1, averaging 5.5 yards per carry as a team even though Pittsburgh knew Baltimore would run most of the time in the second half.
But I chalked the Ravens’ rushing success as an anomaly until after week No. 3 against the Colts. Despite facing one of the NFL’s youngest and a banged-up offensive line that is not good by any measurement, as well as Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter at quarterback, Pittsburgh yielded 17 carries for 86 yards and a 5.1 average to Joseph Addai, who at this point of his injury-plagued career is a basically a slightly better version of Mewelde Moore and a player who would be merely a third-down back for almost every other team.
That game marked only the fourth time in Addai’s career when he averaged 5.1 yards or higher on at least 17 carries, and only the second time he has done so since week No. 4 of his second season in 2007, back when opponents were regularly employing 5-6 defensive backs in the game to counter Peyton Manning and the Colts had a solid offensive line.
Now, Arian Foster is a great back and the Texans undoubtedly have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. But Foster was often untouched before he crossed the line of scrimmage en route to gaining 155 rushing yards on 30 carries against the Steelers last week, and he did so on a bad hamstring and with no real downfield receiving threat to keep Polamalu out of the box after Andre Johnson left the game in the first half with a hamstring injury. The Steelers have now given up 100 yards rushing or more to Rice and Foster this fall after yielding 100 yards or more to an opposing back only once in the previous 50 regular-season games.
Moreover, that front seven is getting almost no pass rush and thus the defense is not creating turnovers. The Steelers are last in the NFL in turnover differential, forcing just one all year from its defense.
But unlike previous years, these problems are not due to defensive breakdowns in the secondary or bad cornerbacks being beaten deep when they are placed in man-coverage. Yes, the Steelers have been out of position at times, are taking some bad angles, have missed too many tackles, and had the disadvantages of their best defensive end Brett Keisel sidelined the past two weeks due to injury, and the NFL’s elite pass rusher, James Harrison, hindered by a a back injury all season and now out with an orbital fracture.
Unfortunately, my review of the gametapes showed that the biggest problem was that the Steelers’ aged defensive linemen are generally each getting easily blocked by just one offensive lineman on a weekly basis.
Their best defensive lineman has been nose tackle Casey Hampton, but he is no longer a Pro-Bowl level player. Chop blocks should be illegal, but any time a second lineman comes in to do so, Hampton literally jumps back several feet to protect his legs, taking himself out of the play in the process. Even when blocked with one man, Hampton is playing too high and is not clogging the middle, especially when opponents run between him and left defensive end Aaron Smith.
Sadly, the 35-year-old Smith is a shell of his former self after missing the latter half of three of the last four seasons with injuries. Smith is just awful against the run, often getting pushed out of the picture and occasionally literally driven on his ass by one blocker. In his prime, Smith regularly was double-teamed and still often stood his ground. He was almost never knocked backward or even beaten by one man.
At no time was Smith worse than in week 1 against the Ravens. But much of that could be attributed to Steelers’ defensive line coach John Mitchell, who – even though his team was being run on at will – kept Smith and Keisel in for 53 and 55 plays, respectively, while only playing recent first-round picks and reserve defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward for 10 and five plays, respectively.
It does not matter if Smith was in his prime and backed up by the Nick Eason of 2007, you need to rotate in your back-up defensive ends in a 3-4 defense, especially since the team has invested two of its last three first-round picks on those two reserve ends.
After week one, I was one of many Pittsburgh fans and pundits to call for Hood to replace Smith in the starting line-up, particularly since Hood fared decent in that role toward the end of last season after being a liability when forced into the line-up as a rookie in 2009.
Hood has been a little better than Smith at holding his space against the rush and advancing slightly forward against the pass. But Smith made two nice plays against the Texans, including a solo tackle of Foster on a third-and-3 that marked the only time in the game that the Steelers’ defense stopped the Texans on a third-and-5 or shorter.
Sadly, that was also one more solo tackle than Hood has made all season. Yes, that stat is correct. Per defensive participation charts, Hood has been in on 143 defensive plays in four games, two of which he started in replace of the injured Keisel. But yet Hood has not recorded a solo tackle this fall. His entire stat-line consists of three assisted tackles on the season. That is awful. It pains me to say this, because I argued strongly for selecting Hood at the end of the first round in 2009 over offensive lineman Max Unger and others if Alex Mack and Eric Wood were off the board (and they were), but Hood is simply not playing at the level expected of a third-year defensive lineman taken in the first round.
Ideally, the Steelers could also use this year’s rookie first-round pick Heyward (who I still believe will be very good but has seen little action) more often in passing downs, but they rarely face obvious passing downs this fall, because opponents are regularly picking up good yardage on first downs. Pittsburgh should consider giving more playing time to reserves NT/DE Chris Hoke and/or NT/DE Steve McLendon, who have both looked better than the starters and the two reserve defensive ends in their limited snaps this fall. Both are stout against the run at defensive end.
Before the season I proclaimed that the 2011 Steelers had the best two-deep 3-4 defensive line depth chart in NFL history. But that is looking like my worst prediction since describing Tim Worley as a blend of O.J. Simpson’s big-play, big-back breakaway speed and Jim Brown’s power, while predicting that Worley would surpass Franco Harris in career yardage. That one was almost as bad as an Anthony Smith proclamation, although at least I was a brash teenager prone to hyperbole when making the Worley claim.
While the subpar play of the defense line has been baffling and totally unexpected, the poor run-tackling, almost complete lack of pass rush, and inadequate pass coverage from what is supposed to be the NFL’s best and is the league’s highest-paid group of linebackers is shocking. The only part that can be explained is Harrison has not been his normal dominant self because he is coming off back surgery, is out of shape due to that injury, and has clearly lost quickness in the process.
Still, he has been the only Steelers who has generated any kind of pass rush this fall (although virtually none in two games) and was the best player in the front seven at holding up against the run. Harrison’s loss for the next month or so could be devastating, because he joins Polamalu as the two Pittsburgh play-makers on defense who find ways to win games at the most opportune times.
In contrast, there is no excuse for the ineffective play of LaMarr Woodley, who – outside of one meaningless sack late against the Ravens – cannot even seem to get near a quarterback. Moreover, as evident by Foster’s game-winning 42-yard TD run last week, Woodley has been less stout against the rush this year, as opponents are running right at him and Smith on the left-side of the Steelers’ defense, often with great success. Woodley, who signed a $61 million long-term deal this off-season, has a history of slow starts before dominating in the post-season. But he has never been this quiet and no 3-4 OLB should go four games without generating any pass rush, particularly one who is now the highest-paid defensive player in the proud history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers made one of their most perplexing picks ever when they slightly reached for outside linebacker Jason Worilds in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft even though there appeared to be no path (barring injury) for Worilds to start until after his fourth year when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Moreover, that particular draft was deep with quality prospects at 3-4 OLB, most teams had Worilds projected to go at least a round later, and the Steelers passed up several major short- and long-term needs to take Worilds, who had an inconsistent, injury-plagued career at Virginia Tech. Had they simply gotten good value and addressed their major need by drafting small-school offensive tackle Jared Veldheer like I called for at the time, the offensive line would not be in such disastrous shape, because Veldheer has emerged as a quality left tackle for the Raiders’ top-ranked rushing attack and a player Darren McFadden loves to run behind.
Worilds, however, is not an Alonzo Jackson-type bust. He was an effective speed rusher against Miami as a rookie, and has since added both functional strength and improved his fundamentals. He has received scant playing time in two games this year, but fared okay against the Ravens and Texans after Harrison left both games with injuries.
But even though Harrison has been playing hurt and lacks stamina, and Woodley has not even been noticeable (never a good thing for an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense), Worilds never saw the field in weeks 2 and 3, and has only played on defense when Harrison left games. Worilds should be rotating in more, especially since at the very least he could add a straight-line outside speed rush that has been lacking. Of course, now that he would finally have a chance to start for the first time, Worilds is out with a quad strain. He gets injured too often and too easily for a guy who almost never plays.
That means that inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons must move over to start at outside linebacker, hurting two positions in the process. Timmons is a good player who would be a dominant performer in a 4-3 defense at weakside linebacker. With the Steelers, though, he has no natural position. He is too short and lacks the pass-rush moves for a prototype 3-4 outside linebacker, and is too light and too weak to shed bigger blockers on the inside, especially when the Steelers’ defensive linemen are not freeing up their linebackers to make plays, which has often transpired this fall.
Timmons leads Steelers’ linebackers with 25 tackles on the season, but 12 of those came in the opener in chasing down Ray Rice, who he could not cover. There is no shame in that (what linebacker can?), but Timmons is not playing anywhere near the level needed to justify the Steelers paying an inside linebacker who has never made a Pro Bowl $50 million over 6 years a year before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent. Timmons needs to start displaying his unbelievable athleticism and make big plays on a weekly basis for the Steelers’ defense to revert back to a successful unit.
The Steelers thought they would be okay with veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote splitting time at the mike spot this fall, particularly since that was expected to be a 1-or-2 down position that leaves the field on most passing downs, although that has not been the case since opponents have rarely been in obvious passing downs. However, it was absurd that the Steelers are paying the two players nearly $7 million this fall, and that Foote was not asked to take a paycut from his $3 million salary cap figure as a reserve inside linebacker when the Steelers were desperate to get under the cap.
After his performances began to slip in 2009, Farrior seemingly defied father-time during an outstanding 2010 regular-season that saw him record 109 tackles, six sacks, rarely miss tackles and fare well in pass coverage. But this fall the 36-year-old Farrior finally looks old and two steps too slow. He is regularly missing tackles in space, something that rarely happened in his prime.
Foote, in contrast, has always been too slow and a liability in pass coverage. However, he has great instincts and is outstanding in run support when backs have little space to elude his tackle. Unfortunately, opposing backs have had plenty of wide holes to run through this fall.
The O-Line’s Failures Were Easy to Project
I am not going to spend much time on the offensive line, because – along with many others – I projected problems due to the 2010 off-season failures and the fact that the Steelers’ front office ingnored these critical positions in the first two rounds of the NFL draft from 2001-09. Obviously losing Colon to a torn triceps in the season-opener was a killer, since the team planned to run behind right tackle most of the time like they have each of the last three years whether Colon or Flozell Adams manned the position.
Waiving Adams was among the dumber moves the Steelers’ front office has made this century, particularly since he was clearly the team’s second best offensive lineman last year behind center Maurkice Pouncey and their best run blocker. You put your best five on the field and figure out positions later, and none of Adams’ contract was not guaranteed.
Adams, by the way, could be on many NFL rosters right now, including the Steelers who asked him to take a significant paycut to stay initially and then phoned his agent after Colon went down. But he has three demands: (A) $5 million salary, which is what he was set to earn for the Steelers, and actually would be a bargain if he played as well as he did in 2010; (2) To be an unquestioned starter; and (3) To play for a contender.
Instead, the Steelers released two proven tackles in Adams and Starks to save salary-cap room, although cutting Starks appeared the the right move at the time, because of his inflated cap figure and 400-pound weight, although the team did not even approach him about a paycut.
What was naive and risky was to re-sign Colon and Jonathan Scott as the unchallenged starters at right and left tackle, respectively. Colon was coming off an Achilles tear, an injury from which more than 1 of every 3 players never make an NFL roster again and most never play at the same level. Now, granted the injury that cost him this fall (torn triceps) was unrelated, although the rust from not playing in a year made him more likely to get injured in any capacity.
I am not saying it was imprudent to re-sign Colon this offseason. I was surprised and optimistic about his signing, but concerned about his injury. Fortunately, his footwork looked decent in the preseason and he should have an easier time returning from this injury in 2012.
But that is why the team never should not have cut Adams, who could have initially started somewhere on this atrocious line (left tackle over Scott?) and then moved to right tackle when Colon went down, assuming he was not already at that spot with Colon providing a significant upgrade at right guard.
It was never a choice between Colon and Adams. Since offensive line has been the team’s Achilles heel in recent years, both players (who were among the Steelers’ three best offensive linemen) should have been kept and the team could have saved cap room by forcing players like Smith and Foote to take significant paycuts if they wanted to stick around. But the Steelers’ front office should not be criticized for being too tight against the cap to now sign Adams. Not using $4-5 million of available cap space would have been a far more flawed philosophy for a contending team than saving it for a rainy day that either may not occur or you may not be able to find players who are both willing to play and worthy of spending that money on after the season begins.
The worse move was entrusting a journeyman like Scott as the starting left tackle. I like Scott and wanted him back as the No. 3 tackle. But the fact that the Steelers signed him for a mere $800,000 base and $1.3 million total for 2011 after his career game in the Super Bowl showed that not only did no other team even consider him as a possible starting left tackle, but none viewed him as a potential starter at any spot.
However, the move this week to re-sign Starks, who has apparently got himself back in shape but is still more susceptible to a career-ending injury and thus was not in demand on the open-market, was wise, because Starks is a serviceable blindside protector for Roethlisberger. At this point, the Steelers’ No. 1 goal for 2011 should be to keep their franchise quarterback that they have invested $100 million in from becoming a quadriplegic before the end of the fall. But since he was already in shape, please tell me why the front office did not try to sign or even speak with Starks last week following the Sunday night game at Indianapolis? There was no justification for waiting through another game for validation of the need for an upgrade after that debacle of a performance by all three men who attempted to play offensive tackle against the Colts.
The negative is that Starks has never been good at run-blocking (although he is still better than Jonathan Scott was at left tackle in that respect) and thus the Steelers do not have anyone to run behind as evident by their inability to get any push at any spot against an under-sized and injured Colts’ defensive front seven that entered that game ranked 30th in the NFL against the run. Hopefully, rookie Marcus Gilbert remains the starter at right tackle. He is nowhere near an NFL quality starter right now, struggling in both run- and pass-blocking. But yet he has easily been the Steelers’ best tackle in each of those areas since Colon went down and has nice upside as a future, long-term starter.
The Steelers’ only limited rushing success this fall has come primarily on plays when left guard Chris Kemoeatu pulls and the team runs North-South runners like Isaac Redman or Moore behind him, and between Pouncey at center and whomever is at right guard. The only other few decent rushing plays have been when Mendenhall breaks outside of right tackle after Gilbert gets a seal on his man.
The Steelers were nowhere near as good as many thought last year and are nowhere near as pitiful as they have looked in three of the first four games this fall. Although please remember that all three poor performances came on the road and the Steelers were dominant (outside of their offensive line) against Seattle in their one home game.
Nevertheless, I still cannot foresee the run defense being this weak throughout the year, but there does not appear to be an easy fix. Moreover, what will happen when the Steelers actually play a decent passing team with a deep receiving corps and cannot bring Polamalu up in the box to support the run?
No one should have much confidence that the combination of William Gay and Keenan Lewis has solved the team’s problems at No. 2-3 corners, although both should be commended for excellent play over the past three weeks. However, they have taken advantage of opponents that have only one above-average NFL receiver, with that player obviously blanketed by Taylor, and two teams (Seattle and Indy) lacking an accurate quarterback.
Still, there is too much talent in the defensive front seven for this team to continue to struggle against the run. More important, though, may be generating some form of pass rush, which might require defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to employ his exotic blitz packages that the team has mostly gone away from to allow Harrison and Woodley freedom to rush the passer on most plays.
In other words, LeBeau is going to have to do more scheming than he has done in recent years to stop the run and generate a pass rush, meaning he will have to take more chances. Considering his track record as probably the NFL’s best and most creative defensive coordinator over the past 15 years, no one should under-estimate LeBeau’s abilities, particularly since the Steelers’ defense still has loads of talent and Polamalu.
Moreover, I expect the offensive line to improve as the season progresses (how can it be any worse?), and am optimistic that Starks and Gilbert will be a serviceable and slightly below-average pass-blocking set of bookends by the end of the season. But forget about the Steelers’ establishing a strong run game this fall against most opponents. They have no physical lineman to consistently run behind as they did with Colon or Adams. In fact, if they can protect Roethlisberger, the team’s best chance to win against most decent defenses is to throw early and often.
I would still probably bet on the Steelers making the playoffs as a No. 6 seed, although right now Baltimore appears to be clearly the best team in the AFC North due to a lack of glaring weaknesses like Pittsburgh has with its offensive line.
The 2011 Steelers are not a Super Bowl-caliber squad. However, we should get a better idea of this team’s potential this weekend. They need a win over the Titans. If they get physically beaten by a Titans squad that ranks dead-last in the NFL in rushing and averages just 2.8 yards per carry on the ground, it will be a long year. But with a win on Sunday, the Steelers should be 5-4 before facing an easy stretch of games that will likely see them favored against their last seven opponents, although a sweep of those teams now appears illogical due to Pittsburgh’s flaws. Those flaws, however, have nothing to do with a Super Bowl hangover. It is way too early to give up on the 2011 Steelers, although this team’s problems run much deeper than a lack of focus or motivation, like the 2006 and 2009 Steelers.