SevenQuest - Part Seventeen
Keep Ya Head Up
Ten random thoughts about the painful end to the Steelers' season, and about where the Steelers need to go from here:
1. I'm not inclined to lay a bunch of blame at the feet of Dick Lebeau. The defensive strategy was designed to protect the offense by allowing Denver nothing, and for the most part it worked. This was not a bend-but-don't break scheme the Steelers ran out, the defense was ready to allow the Steelers' hobbled offense to score 14 points or less and still win. A few big plays caused this strategy to backfire, but the Broncos deserve a ton of credit, too.
They knew they couldn't win with their running game, and they knew they couldn't win by asking Tebow to throw 40 times. So they asked Tebow to try to make big plays vertically, and he did. I'd take the gamble that Lebeau made every time out against Tebow, sitting back in cover two and inviting the running game would have possibly prevented what happened, but it would have been an asinine plan to go in with.
2. I'm sick of hearing that Ben hasn't evolved or progressed as a quarterback. He's light years ahead of where he was just a few years ago in terms of maturation and the efficient operation of the offense. Some folks expect the Steelers to be the Saints or Packers or Patriots in terms of output, and that's an unfair expectation to place on the offense.
What those three teams all share is continuity between the quarterback and the majority of the skill position personnel. Drew Brees and his main wide receivers (Colston/Meachem/Henderson) have been together as a group for five seasons. Aaron Rodgers and his group (Jennings/Driver/Jones/Nelson) have been together for four seasons. Tom Brady has played with Wes Welker and Deion Branch for five seasons each. So there's a natural timing and continuity that the Steelers' young receiver corps just doesn't enjoy yet with Ben.
It will come in time, and we saw improvement over the course of this season, and that was without an offseason which would have been huge for guys like Sanders and Brown.
3. The other thing that those three high-powered offenses have in common is that they've kept that core receiving group, but they've went out of their way to add additional weapons. The Saints have added Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles to complement their veteran receivers. The Packers have added Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb to an already explosive offense. The Patriots added two special tight ends and two possibly special running backs over the past two drafts.
The Steelers need to invest in the offense if they want become one of the best offenses in the game. The stat I presented at the beginning of the season illustrating the disparity of pay between the offense and the defense said it all, and it only got worse as the season went on. The offensive starters against the Broncos carried a 2011 salary of $22.4 million, half of that being Ben. The defensive starters against the Broncos carried a 2011 salary of $52.7 million. As highly-paid defensive starters are let go or retire, that money has to be re-routed to the offense in order for the Steelers to continue to compete against the league's elite.
Great offense beats even the greatest of defenses these days. It's just the way things are.
4. That said, it's impossible to judge whether the Steelers' model is flawed based on one game that ended poorly. The Steelers were missing the following players by the second half: Mendenhall, Moore, Starks, Colon, Pouncey, Hampton, Keisel, Aaron Smith and Ryan Clark. Ben Roethlisberger and LaMarr Woodley were playing through injuries that limited their effectiveness. That's a boatload of guys missing, too many for "next man up" to really mean anything. It's not an excuse, but it's certainly a reason why.
I have a hard time attributing greater weight to scheme or preparation or player personnel strategy than I do to that lengthy injury list. Teams can only overcome so much.
5. The Steelers drafted four defensive players in the first five rounds last offseason. It's time to give the offense similar attention, and the Steelers can use talent at every spot on offense. The Steelers will need a new young QB to groom, with Dennis Dixon likely to leave. This season showed that you can never have enough running backs, and taking one in say the 3rd round this year might prevent them from having to take one earlier the next year, when Mendenhall becomes a free agent. They need a big target who can be a mismatch at either wide receiver or tight end or both. And they certainly need at least one and preferably two high-quality offensive lineman.
When the defense loses players this offseason (and they will), their replacements will have to be found from among the youngsters already on the roster.
6. This loss hurts (losing the bye also hurt). But there are a couple advantages. First, a 2nd place schedule next season will of course help out. Second, drafting 24th is a nice place to be. I'd rather be playing of course, but the Steelers will have a chance to add some quality talent and their schedule next year won't include New England or Houston.
7. I'm not down on Ike Taylor, even though he's an easy scapegoat. He got beat by perfect throws and by a receiver who has a chance to reach the Johnson/Johnson/Fitzgerald level if he can continue to stay healthy. Demaryius Thomas might be the most talented receiver in the game tools-wise, and he was one of the most dominant receivers I ever saw on the college level. He's quietly averaged 109 yards receiving per game over his past six games (including playoffs). Ike got beat, that's that. He'll be back, but it's painful when the one guy whom this defense could count on all year was the guy who didn't get it done when it mattered most.
8. This loss really hurts, and it's one of those losses that is going to linger. I'm on full-scale boycott of all football outlets except this one for a while, at least until well after the Super Bowl. I never would have guessed that 23 points wouldn't be enough to win that game, and the way it ended was just cruel and painful, an eternal lowlight that ended a very strange season of Steeler football.
9. Happy trails and thank you to the following players, if they've played their last games as Steelers: Max Starks, Hines Ward, Charlie Batch, Chris Hoke, Aaron Smith and James Farrior. Steeler legends, each in their own way.
10. SevenQuest will continue next year, with the Steelers hopefully re-tooled and re-energized, with a full training camp and hopefully with a lot fewer key injuries. There's no better franchise to follow in all of sports, and even in disappointment there's still an excitement knowing that next year could most certainly by "our year," again.
We get to choose which book to read, but we don't get to choose the ending. And that's what will make it even more special when the Lombardi Trophy eventually comes home to Pittsburgh, which it will. Believe.