Was it just our CEO or did the NFL playoffs just seem strange last year without the Pittsburgh Steelers involved?? Since the hiring of Bill Cowher in 1992, the Steelers have only missed the playoffs 6 times. The 3-4 defense he installed is still there and regime change was seamless when Mike Tomlin succeeded him. They may be the best team in football when it comes to drafting specific talents to fit their schemes, especially on defense. When was the last time this team blew it with a defensive player taken in the draft??
Over the next few seasons this team will have to replace the most successful group of defenders since the original Steel Curtain. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and James Farrior have already moved on. The day will soon come to replace Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, and Casey Hampton as well. Sounds daunting until you realize Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Kevin Greene, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson once played here and were adequately replaced.
The most remarkable aspect of all these transitions is the fact the defense hasn’t had a drop off in production during all this time. In a season where defensive leader Farrior was let go, Palamalu missed 9 games, and Harrison 3, this team still finished #1 in defense overall. Only allowing 275.8 yards per game. So when you see 1st round selection LB Jarvis Jones, or 4th round pick S Shamarko Thomas, you get the feeling these guys will stick and define a new era in Pittsburgh Steeler defensive football.
Quarterback: One thing that was reported this summer was the comment that Ben Roethlisberger wants to finish with more championships than Terry Bradshaw. It looks like that will be the only way he’ll get the respect from a historical standpoint that his play alone hasn’t fostered. Has there been a more under celebrated 3 time Super Bowl starter?? Last year while learning a new offense he finished with 3,265 yards while completing 63.3% (284 of 449) of his passes. He also finished with 26TDs thrown to only 8 interceptions for a career low 1.8% interception rate. What would he have done with a better rushing attack??
Will Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley adjust his offense to take better advantage of Roethlisberger in the vertical game as well?? In some instances, the Steeler passing game was too controlled. With such a big mobile quarterback, the Steelers should run more waggles and half roll-outs to take advantage of his size. The more they can pass from run formations the better off this passing offense will be. So they definitely need a return effort from their running game. Roethlisberger is entering his 10th year and can take the hits throwing vertically. He’s a team leader and once Haley starts trusting him more to go downfield this offense can push the envelope. Last year the Steelers played it too close to the vest on offense. They need this to return to championship form. Especially with a Super Bowl quarterback in his prime at the helm.
Offensive Backfield: Management made a statement in not re-signing Rashard Mendenhall and drafting Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round. He will be given every opportunity to start and his style of play suits what the Steelers want to do. Isaac Redman (410 yards / 3.7 yd avg) and Jonathan Dwyer (623 yards / 4.0 avg) are still in house but are thought of more as reserve talent more than starters.
Another player brought in that could provide dividends on 3rd downs is the signing of LaRod Stephens -Howling, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. He can also contribute on special teams. However Bell, out of Michigan State, fits the physical profile of a Steeler running back. He has patient but quick feet. A lot like Emmitt Smith, he can make moves in space but it’s his timing that sets up his blocks. His inclusion with Stephens-Howling gives this position an upgrade to playoff quality.
Receivers: Why did the Steelers bring back Plaxico Burress?? Teams aren’t going to be fooled by an old, tall, bad route runner near the goal line. Everyone knows he’s in there for a post corner or fade route only. In the middle of the field he’s not effective and telegraphs an offenses true intentions when they are down close. What they need is a bookend to Antonio Brown who should have his best season in 2013.
The other reason will be the return to more two tight end alignments with the signing of Matt Spaeth. Pro Bowl Tight End Heath Miller (71 rec. /816 yds / 8 TDs) will combine to be one of the league’s best TE tandems. Miller can be moved away from the line and allow for multiple receiver looks without opponents platooning nickel packages. More room for Brown and himself to operate underneath. This group is average going into camp and if Brown breaks out like we think, they can be a playoff caliber group.
Offensive Line: Curiously this team didn’t draft any linemen yet signed 6 to bring in to camp. Only Mike Golic Jr. was an offensive tackle with the rest being Guards or Centers. They have to commit to the run after allowing 37 sacks last year and had Steeler quarterbacks hit an additional 67 times. We say quarterbacks because they got Ben knocked out of 3 games. Either run the ball more effectively or protect the passer better, the Steelers look to go with the first option. They do look to get younger with the release of G Willie Colon.
This feast or famine approach could come back to haunt them if they fall behind in games or if they don’t get the push to improve in the running game. Last year the Steelers were 26th in rushing with 1,537 yards with a 3.7 yard average. That is not Steelers football! Only 9 teams had more than the 16 negative rushing plays to the strong side in 2012. A detriment to a power rushing team and you can only fool opposing teams passing on 3rd and short so much. Steeler football is sic ‘em not slick ‘em. They have to get back to pounding on the line of scrimmage and drafted the back to help. Until we see this take fold this group is below average. They should have drafted a blue chip prospect here last April.
Defensive Line: This is an unsung group when it comes to a defensive line in the NFL. The reason the Steelers finished #1 in defense starts with Casey Hampton eating double teams. You cannot move him off the point of attack and behind him linebackers are scraping, gaming, and blitzing. The number one rule to a 3 man line is the Nose Guard has to be able to eat double teams, triple teams and no one has done it better in the last 20 years. Fellow line-mate ends Brett Keisel (46 tackles / 4.5 sacks) and Ziggy Hood (42 tackles /3 sacks) are passing knowledge to third year player Cameron Heyward, Keisel’s heir apparent. They have signed several linemen to come to camp but these four guys are the main reason this line and defense is Super Bowl quality.
Linebackers: The heart and soul of the Steelers as an organization are the linebackers. Enter Jarvis Jones. His inclusion provides a two fold plus for Dick Lebeau’s charges. He should be NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for the freedom he’ll have playiing next to Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. Foote led the team with 113 tackles while gathering 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. However Timmons had 106 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles along with 2 defensive touchdowns. These numbers could be higher but this group plays downhill on the offenses side of the ball forcing teams to punt. No one is better stocked at Inside Linebacker.
There is far too much for teams to focus on once we talk about LaMarr Woodley than to turn their attention to Jones. In the early portion of the season, watch for teams to slide the line or back to chip on Woodley. The Chancellor thinks Jones will burst out of the blocks and have a strong September. At 6’2 245 lbs, he’ll play taller than James Harrison and can redirect passes with those long arms. Another plus that Harrison couldn’t do. Don’t think we’re downplaying the loss of Harrison, but with five to six inches of reach he can knock down passes when he doesn’t get to the quarterback. Lets ask a question: When hasn’t the Steelers linebacking corps been Super Bowl quality?? This should be the AFC’s best group and Woodley repeats 2012, he will be replaced in 2014.
Secondary: The final phase of introducing the next generation of Steeler defenders will come with the development of Shamarko Thomas. At 5’9 217 lbs, running a 4.3 40?? Two things are going to happen.One he is going to be decking receivers left and right or he’ll swoop in for interceptions by the bushel. The only reason he slipped to the 4th round is the belief by many teams the position has been minimized by teams favoring the short passing game. This guy was an All Big East performer and should fit right in with a rough defense. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are back and will be great mentors for him. Everywhere you look on this defense, there is a blue chip player that doesn’t have to produce right away. In future years this will benefit the Steelers greatly.
One issue is the advanced age of Polamalu and Clark at 31 and 34 respectively, they have already missed a combined 13 games in the last 3 seasons. Now that Thomas is on the scene they can get him some valuable playing time if either are lost for a significant amount of time this season. At cornerback, this team has been able to get away with marginal talent. Thanks to the overall front seven’s ability to stop the run, blitz and force quick passes from their opponents, these guys just need to tackle. They rarely have to cover for long or once receivers go inside, the active linebackers clog most of those lanes. However one interception between Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis combined is terrible. They did defense 36 combined passes but now it’s time to take a look at getting younger. They signed DeMarcus Van Dyke and will give a look to 5th round selection Terry Hawthorne out of Illinois. They did bring back William Gay but if you see him, one of these two didn’t develop fully. Because of the cornerbacks, this group is just average. They need to start the transition on the corners as they have everywhere else on this defense.
Overall: The Steelers offensive line has to perform to return this team to the playoffs. Their biggest nemesis in the division this year is the Cincinnati Bengals and their heavy pass rush. Now throw in James Harrison’s assisting with Steeler personnel strengths and weaknesses in their camp and there is more to worry about. Last year the Bengals were 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 52 to begin with. The Ravens improved their rush with the signing of Elvis Dumervil and the Browns brought in hard working Paul Kruger to get after the passer. This team needs to run the ball and maintain leads.
This will be the last season for Polamalu and Ryan Clark as the season will take it’s toll on these two. Expect the team to find out what they have in Shamarko Thomas as the lumps mount up on the aging safety duo. Last year alone they missed 8 games combined and they’re not getting any younger. Jarvis Jones should battle for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as teams gear themselves to stop Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley. Two of the new generation Steelers are in place on defense and Bell provides spark on offense. It won’t come to fruition until a little more help arrives in 2014. This year’s Steeler team will go 9-7 in a transition year.
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