Panic Time in Steel City?
By: Kim O'Hara | Posted: October 12, 2012
This season has already resulted in frustration for fans of recent Super Bowl winners/contenders. The Patriots dropped two of their first three. The Packers are sitting at 2-3 after one of the most excruciating officiating errors in the history of the game and an improbable comeback in Indianapolis resulted in two unexpected losses. The Giants have opened up 0-2 in NFC East play. And.. the Saints took five weeks to mark one in the win column, a disappointing start even for fans who had prepared themselves for the worst in light of the Bountygate suspensions.
Taking all of that into consideration, maybe Steelers fans shouldn’t feel so bummed. But as much as misery may love company, other team’s setbacks don’t make me feel better, and I can’t imagine they’re much comfort to the rest of Steelers Nation, either. The Steelers are sitting at 2-3, winless on the road, and have yet to play any divisional games.
**I feel compelled to clarify that I don’t feel entirely comfortable publicly criticizing my favorite football team. For me, being a fan has always involved a level of blind optimism that is sometimes rewarded, sometimes punished, but has always felt better than the alternative. I’ve never understood the brand of fan that seems to criticize more than she supports; in a game and for a team over which I have absolutely no control, I fail to see the benefits of rage-filled vitriol directed at athletes playing their hardest.**
That being said, I think it’s worth looking into what, exactly, has the Steelers struggling so far in 2012.
Fourth Quarter Woes / Road Struggles
Last night was the third time in as many road games that the Steelers held a fourth quarter lead only to watch it vanish. And that’s what it’s felt like the defense has done at times: watch opponents drive down the field. Peyton Manning looked like he hadn’t missed a beat in his Week 1 performance against the Steelers; we’ve learned since that even Peyton needs some time to re-acclimate to the NFL. Both Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck led game-winning drives with little resistance. I’ll repeat: Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck. Pittsburgh’s defense has failed to control the line of scrimmage, allowing Chris Johnson (yes… that Chris Johnson) to rush for 91 yards after letting Darren McFadden reach 113 yards in its last road game. The Steelers are also 0-3 on the road for the first time in head coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure. 2006 was the last time Pittsburgh got off to such a slow start away from home.
The oldest excuse in the book. Injuries. But Pittsburgh seems to have been dealt one blow after another this season, and last night’s game was a microcosm of its ongoing battle against injuries. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went down with an apparent ankle injury on the first play from scrimmage. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert was sidelined after he hurt his knee. Doug Legursky stepped in for Pouncey and hardly missed a beat, which is to be expected. Pouncey has missed several games in his career, and Legursky has proven a solid second option. But once Gilbert went down, rookie Mike Adams took his place on the line. Adams was Pittsburgh’s second round pick and is loaded with potential, but he hasn’t adapted quickly enough to be a starter in the NFL.
Rashard Mendenhall returned from ACL surgery in glorious fashion last week, accounting for over 100 yards rushing/receiving and scoring a touchdown against Philadelphia. He seemed to have disappeared at some point in the first half, but it wasn’t until the third quarter that his absence was addressed: he had suffered an Achilles injury and wasn’t likely to return. Fortunately, backup Isaac Redman was racking up receiving yards on quick slants and shovel passes... until he suffered an injury, taped up his right ankle, and spent the rest of the game keeping mobile on the sidelines but never re-entering the fray.
Safeties Will Allen and Ryan Clark each missed portions of the game with minor injuries, which didn’t help a secondary that was already missing its star player (more on Troy Polamalu later) and has seen Ryan Mundy struggle in coverage (and commit helmet-to-helmet hits in both weeks surrounding the bye). The absence of linebacker LaMarr Woodley due to a strained hamstring also took its toll on the defense. Fellow linebackers James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds played as well as anyone could have hoped, but adding a healthy Woodley to the mix would drastically improve just about any defense in the NFL, not just Pittsburgh’s.
Through five games, the Steelers trail only the Ravens and Seahawks among the most penalized teams in the league. Many of those flags have come from defensive pass interference. Cornerback Ike Taylor has been a flag magnet so far this season, committing a pair of particularly costly interference infractions against Tennessee. Some flags have been thrown in response to a lack of discipline, which can be addressed. But a few of those pass interference penalties have taken place as last ditch efforts; the defensive backs are getting beat. That’s an absolute area of concern.
This year’s rushing concerns have managed to transcend the yearly gripes of Steelers fans. We never think our boys run the ball enough, but through five games, it’s looked like they can’t run the ball. Here are Pittsburgh's leading rusher's yardage through five weeks: 43, 28, 27, 68, 22. The Tennessee Titans are averaging 129.5 rushing yards a game. That INCLUDES the Steelers' 56 net rushing yards from last night. If Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are forced to miss more time after Thursday’s injuries, the running game is likely to stay stagnant.
The Steelers have dropped to 7-9 without Troy Polamalu in the lineup since 2009. That record is troubling, as it exhibits how deeply Pittsburgh’s defense depends on Polamalu, but I’m way more concerned by the fact that the safety has now missed sixteen games in the last 3.25 seasons. Polamalu has been integral to the success of a perennial top-ten defense. His mere presence on the field forces opposing offenses to account for him at all times. He’s fast, he’s strong and most importantly, he’s intuitive. But is his body too old to withstand the punishing way he approaches the game? He’s hardly the oldest guy on the field, but at 31, maybe Troy’s days of dominance are over. I hate even jumping to such drastic conclusions since Polamalu is a once-in-a-lifetime player, able to elevate the play around him in a tangible way… and one of the few players even Steelers haters can appreciate. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone express simultaneous dislike for the Steelers and respect for Troy Polamalu…. I’d have a dollar. At LEAST. Get well, Troy!
Linebacker Larry Foote feels pretty strongly that the Steelers’ issues boil down to a lack of mental strength. "We're not strong mentally. We don't look like a championship team right now,” he explained in a radio interview with 93.7 The Fan. If that’s the case, and it’s mental mistakes costing the Steelers in close losses, I might find that more appalling than the physical deficiencies listed above. This is a team of veterans. Many of the guys on the roster have two Super Bowl rings. One of the most common knocks against Pittsburgh’s recent teams has been its age… and with age should come maturity and leadership, not mental weakness.
Tallying all the things wrong with the Pittsburgh Steelers has left me feeling… unfaithful. Because I’m not yet done rooting for them or hoping things turn around this season. So with that in mind, I’d like to throw out a few things we Steelers fans can feel positive about:
The Steelers kicker has looked great this season, falling short on just one attempt through five games after missing 25.8% of his field goal attempts in 2011. He doesn’t have the leg strength of guys like St. Louis’s Greg Zuerlein (they don’t call him Legatron for nothing), and isn’t likely to hit 60 yarders anytime soon. Yes, it was disappointing that his 54-yard attempt fell about a yard short last night, but it was his first miss of the season and he’d tied his career high of 52 earlier in the game. He was able to nail last week’s game-winner in unfavorable weather conditions, and clutch kicks could be vital for a team that looks like it might be in a dogfight each week.
Other than having a fun name to make puns with (“Opposing quarterbacks are in for a Worilds of hurt!”), Jason Worilds is poised to join the pantheon of dominant Steelers linebackers. He’s tied his career high of three sacks through five games. I expect that figure to grow as the season progresses. Second year cornerback Cortez Allen is packed with potential. He hasn’t seen significant playtime as of yet, but when given the opportunity, he’s making heads-up decisions in the secondary. He’s been in on some key defensive plays in his limited time, tallying thirteen tackles (he recorded a total of fifteen last year), and I believe he has the potential to take over Keenan Lewis’ starting role opposite Ike Taylor.
So I’m complaining about the running game but also saying two young running backs are cause for hope? Yep. Batch is in his second year with the team, but spent his rookie season on injured reserve as he recovered from preseason ACL surgery. Last night was the first time we saw him in significant action, and I’m optimistic. He made a few rookie errors (Batch missed an opening as he rushed for the loss of a yard on Pittsburgh’s final offensive possession), but he exhibited a strong will to fight for extra yardage and good ball security (can’t have one without the other). Chris Rainey, on the other hand, looks more explosive each week. His speed and hands give him Darren Sproles-type potential, and his kick returns are improving as the season develops. If Mendenhall and Redman are sidelined for a significant amount of time, the running game will suffer in the hands of these two youngsters, but only due to inexperience. They will improve each week.
In an interview with Kurt Warner last night, Roethlisberger plainly stated that he will never give up on a play. Ever. And that’s the kind of quarterback I want orchestrating drives for my football team. Even as he surpassed Terry Bradshaw for most passing yards in franchise history, Ben looked less than sharp last night. Several of his throws were behind his receivers or, in the case of a late pass in the end zone to Mike Wallace, about five feet too high. These miscues were uncharacteristic for Roethlisberger and ultimately cost the offense, but before last night, he led the NFL in just about any third down-related stat you could come up with. Roethlisberger may never be someone most of us would invite to a party, but he’s undeniably one of the toughest guys under center in the NFL. Targets like Wallace, fellow Pro Bowler Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and the guy listed below don’t hurt, either.
There’s nothing not to love about Heath Miller. In addition to being a huge reason for the Steelers’ success on third down, his contributions as a blocker are significant. If he’s not directly part of a play, he’s facilitating his teammates’ progress.
10 Days Until Cincinnati
Best part about watching your team record a heartwrenching loss on a Thursday night? There are ten days for reorganization, recovery and regrouping before the next game. And the team will probably get in better shape, too.
In seriousness, I’m frustrated and less optimistic than usual for the 2012 Steelers prospects, but if you talk to me by next Friday or Saturday, I’ll have a list of reasons I think the Steelers will leave Cincinnati with a win. And that’s why I’m probably less than trustworthy when it comes to assessing the state of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kim O'Hara is the Associate Editor of TheFootballGirl.com. She is an avid fan of the NFL and, as you may have read, an unabashed Steelers homer. She has also been a contributor to ESPN the Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @arahomik
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