Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Are We Seeing The Same Old Steelers?

When first considering the newest version of the Pittsburgh Steelers to this point in the preseason, some have scoffed and said that nothing has changed. The 'same old Steeler' complaints have rained down. "They're not throwing it deep!" "The offensive line sucks!" The secondary can't cover anyone!" Unfortunately, those people would be correct.

Fortunately, those people are also wrong. 

The thing to remember first and foremost is that this is still the preseason. The second game of the preseason. This is mainly a time for evaluation as you have 90 men vying for 53 roster spots. In truth, you have about 44 men battling for approximately seven spots, or around 15 when you include the practice squad players. So, don't look at the final scores. Ever.

That said, there are still chinks in the armor to be sure. Mike Wallace has yet to report to the team and sign his tender (though, as of the last posting, he may be set to do so), which affects the deep throws. The tackle positions are still up for grabs because of inexperience and injury. On top of that, the defense has its own injuries and seems like it might have some issues as it's allowed teams back into the two games. Jim Wexell discusses those injuries and the overall health of the Steelers here:

It would seem then that there is a long way to go before seeing a viable playoff team hit the field. That is nothing at this point to be overly concerned about, though, and will be addressed as we continue in this discussion.

In the game Sunday night against the Colts, it was obvious that the Steelers were looking to emphasize the run, as they ran the ball on the first five plays of the game. 

Jonathan Dwyer, who'll be the starting running back September 9th in Denver, has probably made the Steelers feel pretty good with him as their backup after the way he played against the Colts. He showed the ability I initially expected from him out of college. He broke a couple of tackles on his first run and then actually threw a good block on Chris Rainey's gain on that drive. Considering he'd shown little desire or ability to block in the past, that's a good sign. 

I think it's clear to this point that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, though he didn't look sharp last Sunday, feels most comfortable throwing to Antonio Brown. Five of his pass attempts, were to AB, who took a short pass and then played ping pong with the Colts secondary.

Brown became a favorite target of Big Ben in 2011 when Wallace, who began the season with three consecutive 100-yard games, experienced a second-half slump. Brown had 51 of his 69 receptions in the final 10 games, a time during which Wallace had only one 100-yard game.

Make no mistake, though, Wallace is needed. Those five aforementioned pass attempts were also Big Ben's only passes to wide receivers. That's where the lack of another true threat affects what we've been shown from this offense. Notice, now, I said another "true" threat. Mike Wallace isn't the only speedster on the team. As we've written before, Emmanuel Sanders is a 4.41/40 runner. 

The difference is that Sanders has had feet (both) surgeries and knee problems. So, he isn't feared the way Wallace is. There's isn't the amount of game film on Sanders that there is on Wallace. What cornerbacks see on film causes them to tell their wives and girlfriends to just go to the mall that Sunday to avoid embarrassment. 

Wallace's ability is known, Sanders not so much so. Sanders is probably the most well-rounded receiver the Steelers have, when you include his route running, hands and blocking prowess. Add both of those men to the lineup and the complexion of the offense could change overnight. They would greatly affect a starting offense that was only able to score once in four drives, which came off of a 7-to-84 wide receiver 57-yard touchdown scoring screen. 

The offensive line is showing some growing pains with the insertion of youth it picked up in April's NFL Draft. David DeCastro has been the plug-and-play guy we thought he'd be and will be an integral part of the new Steelers line, along with Pouncey and Colon on the other side, for years to come. Backup guards and center Ryan Lee, Kelvin Beachum, who to this point looks overwhelmed, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky complete a solid, sometimes formidable interior. 

The problem is on the outside-the tackles. The other early draft pick, Mike Adams, isn't fairing as well. I commented on what I saw from Adams after the first preseason game in an interview with hosted by Lance Williams. I said that I felt it was more of a mental issue than a physical one. Though I still contend that it is, I see the physical issues better now also. 

Adams doesn't have physical issues in the sense that he's being overpowered, rather with regard to his footwork and his stance, his leanings. You simply can't give away the outside shoulder on an edge rush. You just can't. He also has to learn to trust the guard on his hip. Those are as much mental issues as they are physical and can be corrected with the guidance of coach Sean Kugler.

Speaking of Lance Williams, as he pointed out in his latest podcast, what's worse than what's mentioned above is Adams' body language when he does something wrong. I can accept if you do something wrong, just learn from your mistakes. Like Williams said, the dropping of the shoulders posture isn't encouraging and Adams looks to be a project. The link to that podcast where Williams, aka Big Swa, talks about this and other musings is on the front page of the blog you're currently reading. 

The other elements in the OLine equation are Marcus Gilbert and Max Starks. Gilbert is a locked in at right tackle, no question. He played well last season and should only get better. The problem is that Starks isn't completely healed quite yet and most likely won't be ready week one. Since Adams won't be either, my expectation of a Steelers opening day OLine of Starks-Colon-Pouncey-DeCastro-Gilbert isn't likely to happen. We may see a pre-bye lineup instead of Gilbert-Colon-Pouncey-DeCastro-Foster(?). Nonetheless, Starks is working with the first team and remains optimistic. -

As far as the defense is concerned, Ike Taylor worked a lot to improve his hands this offseason, he even said that this Training Camp was the most intense of his career. Well, it paid off Sunday night when he jumped the route and took an interception (if you didn't see the game, that is not a typo) 49 yards down the sideline for a touchdown in the first quarter. 

Swag also made Cortez Allen look good. A seeming miscommunication with Troy Polamalu almost allowed Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton to catch a big pass, but he bobbled the pass and it was intercepted by Tez Allen. Curtis Brown should also see action on special teams and in Dime packages. 

The thing to remember here is that the Steelers defense led the NFL last year against the pass. So, the problem wasn't in the secondary, it was the poor run defense that gave up almost 100 yards (99.8) per game. Injuries aside, the lack of penetration and gap play by the defensive line allowed runners to get to the second level too often. It also disallowed the linebackers to get adequate and consistent pressure on the quarterback. 

Lack of gap control and lack of pressure resulted in a lot fewer sacks. The Steelers had averaged 48.67 sacks from 2008-10, but only reached the quarterback 35 times in 2011. The lack of pressure not only leads to fewer sacks but can also lead to fewer mistakes. In 2010 the Steelers intercepted opposing passers 21 times, but only had 11 in '11. The 2010 defense also forced 24 fumbles and had a total of 25 recoveries. Last season saw fewer than half of those recorded with only 12 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries. 

It's evident then that the key is the splash plays - sacks and turnovers - which are caused by gap control and pressure. As we've written before, that means Ziggy Hood has to step forward and be counted. His offseason regimen has been well-publicized, including on this blog, and all of Steeler Nation is expecting more from him and the rest of the defensive line. - 

Being that the first team defensive line has looked good, even very good at times, that is at least promising. They haven't given up any leads, either-those were given up by the second, third and fourth string players. Truthfully, Steve McLendon has come in as advertised and has been beating centers like they stole from him. Cameron Heyward was involved in two fights in Training Camp and I'm wanting to see that physicality and fire unleashed on an opponent.

Beyond that is the linebacking corps. Outside, Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson aren't LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, but they're linebackers whom I'd want with me in battle. Both explode to the ball and just make plays. Period. 

The one who is an enigma at this point in the preseason is Jason Worilds who's still recovering from wrist surgery. If he can recover and get back on the field it would make for a deep set of linebackers. -

Inside the veteran Larry Foote calls the defense from the Buck spot with Lawrence Timmons waiting to fall back into his natural Mack position. 

Behind them are rookie Sean Spence whom head coach Mike Tomlin says has very good "see-to-do," and Stevenson Sylvester who will sit the first four weeks with a knee injury. -

"I'm always optimistic. That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be ready. We're just taking it day to day and we're going to let his recuperation dictate how we proceed. He's always been a fast healer and we'll keep that attitude." - Mike Tomlin on James Harrison's knee surgery. 

With Stevenson Sylvester already down for at least the first three games of the season with his own knee injury, Harrison's situation looms larger. Harrison is as hard-nosed as they come, so much so that he had to actually be pulled out of a game in which he suffered a BROKEN SKULL (fractured orbital bone). Deebo is the real deal. A workout warrior. But, it's because of this that Ed Bouchette is very plain in saying that this will really affect The Silverback and that he won't come back healthy too quickly.  -

Even with the various issues the Steelers have shown thus far, the upside is still tremendous. Try to remember that, despite a quick exit from the playoffs, this was a 12-4 team last season.

Once all of these above-mentioned components come back from injury, suspension or holdout and have a chance to mesh and form themselves into a cohesive unit, this has the potential to be a dangerous team. 

So, don't put too much stock in what's being shown in the games thus far. Haley, LeBeau and Tomlin aren't going to show their hand this early. Even though it's entirely possible that this team won't begin to truly hit its stride until after the bye week, make no mistake that these are your same ol' Steelers, and they will be there in the end.