Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Steelers Offense Will Improve, Defense Must Improve

"Troy Polamalu takes blame for Thomas TD. Ben takes blame for INT. But blame Steelers loss on Peyton Manning, the master of [the] 4thQ."

Those words were written by Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after the game on Sunday in Denver. By now, you know all the numbers and why those individuals said what they did. But, what Robinson wrote truly epitomized the outcome of the game: regardless of the bad angle taken by either Big Ben's throw or Polamalu's pursuit, the ultimate blame lies with Peyton Manning. - http://tinyurl.com/9cslgfk

That said, Big Ben Roethlisberger was straight forward when commenting on his part in the loss.

"There’s no one to blame but myself. I already told my teammates and coaches that it’s my fault. It’s on me. It’s disappointing. I hate to let my team down, my coaches, the fans. That loss is squarely on my shoulders. I'll take that and get better and learn from it," said the Steelers Digest Player of the Week.

While both Ben's offense and Troy Polamalu's defense share responsibility for the outcome, though, one unit already looks to have a higher ceiling. While it may not be immediately obvious by a cursory look at the numbers, the offense instituted by Todd Haley has real big game potential. 

I know, I know, I'm in the minority in this so far-I've already seen the message board, Twitter and Facebook posts, which is why I waited before writing this piece. And at first glimpse, I could see how I would seem to be wrong. Haley's offensive focus, though, is to run the ball more and more effectively, to protect the quarterback by utilizing shorter drops and to throw the ball to tight ends and running backs more. There is also an impetus on getting the ball out of Big Ben's hands quicker and on using shorter drops. For the most part, with the big picture in mind, mission accomplished. Big Ben agrees.

“I thought we did pretty well. We were going against a great defense in a hostile environment. We did a lot of no-huddle, mixing things in. We used a lot of clock, worked down the field, made plays when we needed to," Big Ben said. "Overall, I was happy with the way the guys handled the offense.”

Dejan Kovacevic wrote a fantastic article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review regarding his thoughts on this as well. You can read it here: http://tinyurl.com/8j7bnmv

Speaking again of Big Ben, those were the realistic words of a quarterback who understands that this was only one piece of the pie and one who is looking at what eventually will be. It's the typical fan who only sees 26 rushes for just 75 yards, and not the fact that Jonathan Dwyer carried the ball nine times for 43 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and that Rashard Mendenhall will be back after the bye. Haley wants more ball-control, Dwyer has shown that he can be that running back, a sentiment seemingly echoed by head coach Mike Tomlin. He said in his Tuesday press conference that Dwyer will get more opportunities. - http://tinyurl.com/95r86zg

That said, certain elements do still need tweaking, such as the 28 total first downs that produced only 79 yards and the four sacks allowed. All-in-all, though, I'm reservedly optimistic about the offensive line considering they were down to just five players after right tackle Marcus Gilbert (knee) and right guard Ramon Foster (eye) were injured, both of whom will be available this Sunday. Considering that, there was good overall protection from the offensive line. 

Unfortunately, that has a second edge to it. The Steelers OLine pass blocked better than it run blocked on Sunday, managing to keep Big Ben clean most of the game. The problem lies in the poor first down numbers mentioned earlier. Keeping Big Ben upright is good, forcing him into "Ben being Ben" because of too many third and long down and distances (they were 11-19 in those) is not. Which is one of the main things they're wanting to avoid this season forward. 

The Steelers played good ball-control and kept Peyton Manning off of the field as they wanted to do, they just weren't able to close the door enough. That will improve. Remember, overall it's not Haley's playbook that's the issue, it's the players grasping that playbook. Haley's job is get those players in a position to execute. The blame is ultimately on them.

The comments vilifying the offense just aren't warranted. I've seen the shouts of "predictable" play-calling regarding what was seen against the Broncos, but I don't subscribe to that notion because (1) it was the first game and (2) 'predictability' is the most overrated concept in football - they still have to stop you. 

Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers 'predictably' created "a seal here and a seal here" and ran it "right up the alley." No one stopped them. He and his teams were predictable all the way to five NFL Championships, including two Super Bowls. Execution trumps predictability 24/7/365.

The defense gets a needed boost in that starting free safety Ryan Clark comes back this Sunday against the New York Jets. It may also get another in the return of Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison. According to Tomlin, "James Harrison worked out Monday. He will run [Wednesday] and see where he is. We'll work him up to activity and let that be our guide."

I am on record in previous blogs and on the http://SteelCurtainRadio.com podcast as saying that the "telepathic" and even "symbiotic" connection between Clark and strong safety Troy Polamalu would be missed. It was. I also said that Harrison's absence would mean less pressure on Manning and a run game that would test the side vacated by him. It did. Let's hope the Steelers return both of those two players this Sunday.

In that podcast interview I also downplayed the impact of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, saying that his historic game was as much a product of the unpredictability of the Triple Option (really a "Spread Option") offense run by Tim Tebow. I was actually wrong and right on that one. While the X-factor that was Tebow affected game plans, I can't take anything away from Demaryius Thomas who had five catches for 110 yards on Sunday. 

The majority of that, though, was the big catch-and-run off the bubble screen which he took untouched to the house. Tackle the catch better, which was a problem all game, and he only had four receptions for 39 yards. Have to tackle the catch better, as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau likes to say, and disallow all the yards after the catch (YAC). 

To illustrate why this is so important: Manning was 19-26 for 253 yards - only 127 of those yards were in the air, meaning the defense surrendered 126 in YAC. (Thank you, NFL Rewind.) So, half of the passing/receiving yards were because of poor tackling. 

Plus, as was alluded to in the opening paragraph, Polamalu was caught completely out of position to make the play. He took the wrong angle and Thomas, aided by a possible hold by Jacob Tamme on Ike Taylor and a definite hold by Zane Beadles on free safety Ryan Mundy, was off to the races. 

Too bad LaMarr Woodley couldn't make it to Denver. 

The return of Ryan Clark and James Harrison won't be a panacea for this defense. Chris Carter and Jason Worilds need to continue to contribute and Cortez Allen must wrap up better. Before LeBeau's defense and schemes start to come into question, also, the defense as a whole must improve. Giving up 334 yards on 55 plays is not a LeBeau defense. 

In fact, outside of Buck inside linebacker Larry Foote, who registered eight total tackles, one sack (almost two), one forced fumble and one pass defensed in the week 1 loss, the defense wasn't overly impressive and was gouged from mid-third quarter onward. This is definitely my greater concern. The defense didn't look like last season's No. 1 ranked unit, but instead simply looked to return to the scene of the crime. And that crime was never solved.