By Michael Bean, Behind The Steel Curtain
After a frustrating 2009 season and an even more disappointing offseason, Mike Tomlin has his sights set on getting the Pittsburgh Steelers back on track in 2010. After a successful string of mini-camps this spring, a promising training camp, and a 2-0 start to the preseason, the Steelers now have their sights set on finishing the preseason injury-free and getting the party started in earnest against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1 of the regular season. The Steelers are flying under the national radar heading into the season, and for understandable reasons. They will be without their franchise quarterback for at least the first quarter of the regular season; their defense looked porous far too often last year, especially in the secondary late in games; and the offensive line is still a work in progress. Don't sleep on the six-time Super Bowl champs though. There's still plenty of firepower on both sides of the ball, and the roster is still chalk full of guys who have hoisted a Lombardi Trophy.
Pittsburgh's training camp and preseason has been highlighted by several intriguing roster battles. Most notably of course is the starting quarterback duties being up for grabs while Ben Roethlisberger is serving his suspension. Byron Leftiwch may have the upper hand in terms of experience, but Dennis Dixon has come a long way in his development since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. Dixon has looked pariticularly impressive thus far, but Leftwich reminded folks Saturday night that he's still a viable threat when he delivered on a perfectly executed deep bomb to speedster Mike Wallace for a 68 yard TD score late in the 2nd quarter. Even though Tomlin said he likely would have his mind made up by now, it's more likely that he's still weighing his options given how well both have played.
Other positional battles to keep an eye on are the #4 and #5 wide receiver spots. Rookie draft picks Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown will take on veteran Arnez Battle and 2009 surprise Tyler Grisham for the final spots. Their chances were all helped by the unfortunate season ending injury sustained by Limas Sweed in May. Both Brown and Sanders will try to beat out Stefan Logan for kick and punt returning duties. Steelers fans will also be interested to see how the running back competition shakes out. There should be an open competition behind feature 'back Rashard Mendenhall. Veteran Mewelde Moore is a proven and steady contributor, but rookie Jonathan Dwyer and 2009 camp sensation Isaac Redman may have more upside in the running game than does Moore at this stage in his career.
Of course, any and all success the Steelers have offensively is going to largely come down to how the offensive line plays. The numbers may not back up it up, but the much-maligned offensive line actually made significant progress last season. There's no denying the fact that the line struggled against upper crust rush defenses-the Steelers surrendered 50 sacks, the second-most in the league and the fourth consecutive year with at least 47. Of course, one of the never ending debates in Steeler Nation is just how many of those sacks were a result of Ben Roethlisberger holding on to the ball too long. Furthermore, Big Ben's record setting statistical season simply would not have been possible if the offensive line didn't give him ample time to survey the field.
The Steelers were dealt a major setback in late June when right tackle Willie Colon was lost for the year with an Achilles heel injury. Pittsburgh had been counting on Colon to start opposite Max Starks and to continue improving in what would have been his fourth year as a starter. The former Hofstra graduate sadly will miss the entire 2010 season after undergoing surgery in late June to repair the excruciatingly painful injury. Sure, every NFL team plans for the unexpected, but Colon had been one of the team's most durable players having made 50 consecutive starts from late '06 through the end of last season.The Steelers signed long-time Cowboys tackle Flozell Adams to potentially play right tackle, but Adams has looked less than stellar so far during camp and the preseason. Because the Steelers didn't give him any guaranteed money, it's still very much a possibility that they release him before the start of the season and roll the dice with one of their younger options at tackle (Tony Hills, Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, or even Kraig Urbik or Chris Scott).
New offensive line coach Sean Kugler is no stranger to these types of situations - the Buffalo Bills lost five offensive linemen to the injured reserve list in 2009 and started seven different tackle combinations over the course of the season. Kugler faces another tough challenge this season as he to evaluate who his best options are amongst a deep but inexperienced crop of young reserves. One thing Steelers fans can be feel good about is that they seem to have found another outstanding talent in the first round of the Draft. Maurkice Pouncey looks to be the real deal, and if he doesn't unseat incumbent center Justin Hartwig this year, he'll almost certainly start at right guard before sliding back over to center after Hartwig's contract expires at the end of this season.
After a mind bogglingly dominant season in 2008, the Steelers defebse returned to earth last year. The final statistics suggested that the Steelers were one of the league's better defenses, but no fan would try to argue that Dick LeBeau's group played up to its potential. The rush defense wasn't the issue - Pittsburgh went the first 14 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher before Ray Rice ran wild in Week 15. In fact, Pittsburgh finished with a top three rushing defense for an astounding sixth consecutive season. It was the play of the inexperienced secondary that let teams back into games and ultimately cost the Steelers a playoff berth.
The Steelers rush defense should once again be impregnable thanks to the re-signing of Casey 'Big Snack' Hampton to an extension this offseason. Veteran DL stalwart Aaron Smith also returns to the fold after missing much of last year with a rotator cuff injury. Finally, 2009 first-round draft pick Evander Ziggy Hood has progressed to the point where defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will surely feel comfortable making him a part of the regular rotation along the line. That should help keep the Steelers' three starters (all over 30 years of age) fresher throughout the year.
The Steelers had a surprisingly busy offseason revamping their linebacking corps. Heading into the offseason, some wondered if the team wouldn't benefit from adding a young prospect or two to the fold for depth and special teams purposes, but I don't think too many saw the Steelers addressing the depth charts at both the inside and outside linebacker positions quite so rigorously.
The whirlwind of activity began in early March when the team welcomed back Larry Foote during free agency. Foote, who has a proven track record of excellence in Dick LeBeau's defense, was thrilled to be back in Pittsburgh after spending the 2009 season with the hapless Detroit Lions organization. In addition to satisfying fans' propensity for nostalgia, the reacquisition of Foote was especially welcomed by those in Steeler Nation that were concerned about the decline in play of 34-year old, James Farrior.
To his immense credit, Farrior managed to lead the team in tackles for the second consecutive year despite looking a step (and sometimes even two) slower in open space. Make no mistake about it, Farrior deserves kudos for starting all 16 games for the fourth year in a row and he was hardly a liability from his 'mack' ILB position in LeBeau's 3-4 scheme. But by bringing back Foote, the hope is that Farrior, a two time Pro Bowler and the captain of the defense, will be fresher come November and December and not asked to shoulder quite so much responsibility at this stage of his career.
As was mentioned, Kevin Colbert's selections on days two and three of the draft came as a surprise to many fans and media members. It began when Colbert and Mike Tomlin wasted no time drafting Jason Worilds, a prototypical 3-4 'tweener' DE/OLB from Virginia Tech, with the 52nd overall pick in the second round. Then two rounds later, the Steelers nabbed Ohio State's Thaddeus Gibson, another collegiate DE that will make the transition to LB at the NFL level. Scouts questioned whether Gibson maxed out his potential in college, but linebackers coach Keith Butler and the Steelers were intrigued and impressed by Gibson's potential after spending time with him and evaluating him more closely. Pittsburgh concluded its stockpiling of LB prospects by drafting ILB Stevenson Sylvester in the fifth round. A three year starter for the Utah Utes, Sylvester is a high-motor guy with the type of competitive and leadership qualities Tomlin craves. By the end of the three day affair, the Steelers depth chart at both LB positions was plenty crowded.
If All World safety Troy Polamalu returns - and remains - healthy in 2010, the Steelers' secondary woes might just become a distant memory. Polamalu played in just give games last season, appearing for the final time in a Week 10 loss against the Bengals. Success in the NFL rarely hinges on one player, particularly on defense, but the reality is the Steelers were 4-1 with Polamalu in the lineup and 5-6 when #43 wasn't able to go.
Returning for his fourth year as Polamalu's running mate is free safety Ryan Clark, who appeared to be halfway out the door in March during free agency. Just as Clark seemed poised to sign with the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers and Clark came to terms on a reasonable 3-year contract. After opting not to re-sign veteran reserve Tyrone Carter this offseason, the Steelers wisely went to work acquiring depth and experience at safety. They began by signing veteran free agent safety Will Allen, a former 2001 first-round draft pick by the New York Giants who has spent the past three seasons in Miami. Allen should play quite a few snaps as a nickel back, perhaps utilized like Deshea Townsend was in 2008.
Joining Allen as a primary reserve is third-year FS Ryan Mundy. After being plagued by injuries during his rookie year and looking lost and unreliable last season, Mundy is hopefully ready to finally contribute in 2010. Given the injury history of Polamalu and Clark, it's imperative that Mundy has prepared himself adequately to take advantage of the next opportunity that inevitably presents itself.
The situation at cornerback is more complicated and interesting. Ike Taylor, the team's top cover corner, is coming off a down year just like the rest of the secondary. Taylor didn't look a step slow last year, or outclassed physically in any way for that matter. He just missed a crucial assignment here and there, and failed to make momentum changing plays when he was in position to do so. Taylor owns an infamously repellent set of hands, so it wasn't the missed interceptions that were surprising. Instead, it was the fact that the veteran looked lost on several occasions, as well as not quite as engaged and interested in taking on all challenges like he normally has in recent years. Eager to get back to his swaggin' ways, Taylor reportedly upped the ante this spring with his already legendary offseason conditioning regiment. Don't be surprised if Taylor's eighth season in Pittsburgh is his best to date.
The young cornerbacks on the Steelers depth chart took notice of Taylor's work ethic and focus this spring. That's music to the ears of Steeler Nation, as the trio of William Gay, Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett all struggled in one way or another last season. Gay experienced potentially invaluable growing pains during his first full year as a starter as teams picked on him relentlessly. By season's end, Gay had claimed the crown of 'least popular player' from Willie Colon, thankfully ending his three year reign in the doghouse. Gay recently admitted that he thought he had 'arrived' last summer after excelling in his complimentary role in '08, and then being named a starter for '09 following McFadden's departure. Consequently, Gay didn't prepare quite as diligently as he probably needed to given the big leap he was about to make.
Meanwhile, neither Joe Burnett nor Keenan Lewis had memorable rookie campaigns. Lewis was bothered by lingering back issues and played only sparingly; the defining moment of Burnett's season was when he dropped a 'gimme' interception late in the game against the Oakland Raiders - a pick that would have sealed the game and ultimately put the Steelers into the playoffs. Lewis in particular has looked sharp during spring practices and could conceivably start at some point this season. I include myself in any camp that believes Burnett will contribute in '10.
All three might be chasing Bryant McFadden, who the Steelers reacquired from the Arizona Cardinals on day three of April's draft. McFadden's lone season in the desert was unremarkable, neither great nor awful. His parting gift to Arizona fans was two putrid outings during the playoffs last January. Because of McFadden's experience in Dick LeBeau's system, he will in all likelihood start the year as the #2 CB, leaving Gay, Burnett and Lewis to be primarily deployed in various nickel and dime packages.
Sixth-round draft pick Crezdon Butler will try to nudge his way onto the back end of the crowded depth chart. The speedy but raw CB out of Clemson isn't lacking in self-confidence, so you never know how he might perform in Latrobe. More than likely however, Butler will spend the year on the practice squad learning the ins and outs of playing arguably the most difficult position in all of sports. Finally, Anthony Madison, Pittsburgh's veteran special teams ace, could be a camp casualty if the crop of young players seem to be developing. I wouldn't expect that to happen before the final round of cuts though, because it's a safe bet that Tomlin and his staff will be keeping a close eye on special teams play during camp and the early stages of the preseason.
Porous 4th quarter defense, injuries, costly turnovers, untimely sacks, inconsistent red zone efficiency - those are but a few of the reasons why the Steelers finished the 2009 season 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the first time in the Mike Tomlin era.
Poor special teams play was arguably the most debilitating and frustrating aspect of last season though. According to Football Outsiders' metrics, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst team covering kickoffs of any team since 1993, the first year FO began tracking ST performance. Traditional statistics confirm just how bad the Steelers were. Pittsburgh surrendered four kickoff return touchdowns, a ghastly number matched only by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings in the recent annals of NFL history. The Steelers were also dead last in starting field position for the opposition (31.3 yard line) last season.
It's not clear whether or not the Steelers struggled on special teams coverage units due to a lack of preparation or from relying too heavily on so many inexperienced young players. What we do know, however, is that Coach Tomlin is serious about not letting the same thing happen again this year. Tomlin fired special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky at season's end and replaced him with veteran ST coordinator Al Everest, a 13-year NFL coaching veteran who has spent the past three seasons in San Francisco. Everest has his work cut out for him shoring up kickoff coverage and punt return coverage, an area where the Steelers also struggled last season.
The good news is the Steelers have plenty of capable athletes to get the job done. Pittsburgh drafted three players with intriguing upside as head hunters on coverage units- Jason Worilds (2nd round), Thaddeus Gibson (4th) and Stevenson Sylvester (5th). Then there's the slew of young defensive backs (Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett, William Gay) who should be hungry to contribute on special teams now that Bryant McFadden has returned and will most likely be named the second starter at cornerback. Free agent acquisition Arnez Battle has special teams experience and acumen as well from the wide receiver position, and could very well cement his spot on the 53-man roster with sound ST play during training camp and the preseason.
The Steelers fared better returning kicks and punts than they did covering them. Return specialist Stefan Logan earned a job and legions of new fans with his monstrous preseason performance last year, but he unfortunately couldn't quite recreate the same magic during the regular season. The former CFL running back averaged a respectable 26.7 yards per kick return and a pedestrian 9.7 yards per punt return. By season's end, he had set the Steelers single season record for most kickoff return yards in a season. But while watching opposing returners dance in the endzone after a long return, many Steelers yearned for the same game changing plays from their own return man.
There's a certain segment of the fanbase who is quick to remind Logan detractors that he's essentially Joshua Cribbs when compared to Carey Davis, Gary Russell and Najeh Davenport - the team's primary kickoff returners in '07 and '08. Others, myself included, would rather a precious roster spot be used on somebody who did more than just return kicks and punts at an above average, but not elite level.
Potential competitors for Logan's duties include rookie wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, and perhaps Burnett. Antwaan Randle El and Mewelde Moore can obviously be trusted to handle punt return duties on short notice. There's always the possibility that a no-name emerges to win the job just like Logan did a year ago.
In the kicking game, the Steelers welcome back kicker Jeff Reed and punter Daniel Sepulveda. The Steelers used the Franchise Tag on Reed during free agency, but were hard at work trying to hammer out the details of a long-term extension with the eccentric but reliable kicker. As of June 1st, a deal had not yet been finalized. Regardless, Reed returns for his eighth season with the team in 2010 after converting 27 of 31 field goal attempts last season. As unfair as it may be considering how solid Reed was for most of the year, his '09 season will mostly be remembered by his two missed FGs in the 4th quarter of Pittsburgh's Week 2 loss to the Chicago Bears. Steeler Nation is probably more concerned about Reed's propensity to party than his reliability kicking field goals, but many of us would still like to see Reed improve his kickoffs (not likely at this stage in his career) and his tackling prowess in emergency situations (remember his matador routine on Percy Harvin?).
After having endured a long season of Mitch Berger's low, line-drive punts, Steelers fans welcomed back Daniel Sepulveda from knee surgery with open arms. There was really nothing notable at all about Sepulveda's '09 season though. He was middle of the pack or lower in yards per punt, net yards per punt and average return yards allowed. Hopefully Sepulveda, like the rest of his teammates on special teams units, will elevate his game in 2010.
I'm not much of one for predictions, but given the state of affairs midway through the preseason, I feel comfortable predicting that the Steelers will be back in the playoffs this coming year with at least 10 wins. From there, as we all know, it's anybody's game. As was mentioned at the outset, the roster is full of guys who have excelled in the biggest of moments before. There's no reason to think they can't or won't do so again if they can just get themselves back to the playoff party come January.