Monday Evening Quarterback - November 19, 2007
Face the Music
The 2007 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is not one of the top teams in the league and by no means should they be considered a favorite in the AFC come playoff time. And you know what? I'm fine with that, on one condition: they address their issues intelligently in the offseason and don't accept the status quo as "good enough."
The goal for any team for any given season should be to win the Super Bowl. The goal for any team with as much talent and experience as the Steelers should be the same. But that doesn't mean that not winning the Super Bowl is a complete and abject failure when you take a long-view look at the state of the team.
Coming off an 8-8 season, simply making the playoffs and winning a home playoff game should be considered a very positive step in the right direction, a step that rookie head coach Mike Tomlin can build off of as he continues his tenure with the Steelers.
Will I be happy with anything less than ring #6? Of course not, and no one should be. It's always painful when you realize the season is over, and the long wait through the offseason begins. There's a difference between expectations and reality, however, and the reality is that it's going to take another year or two before the Steelers are big dogs again.
There's a free agency period to attend to, and it actually appears promising for the Steelers. Are they going to make a splash? No. But they locked up some key players like Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith, and the players they're likely to lose have replacements waiting, aside from Alan Faneca. They're stuck with what they've got for 2007, but whatever this season's outcome, they can't be complacent about loading up for 2008.
If there's one thing to be said about the current season, it's that the Rooney family was correcting in staying true to form by hiring a young, up and coming coach like Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin has passed every test with flying colors. Does he have a long way to go? Of course. That should have been expected.
This is a 35 year old guy with a long coaching career in front of him and no head coaching experience behind him. Clock management, challenges, and everything that goes along with winning on the road are all new concepts to him from a top-down perspective. He'll work hard, and he'll improve in all of those areas.
During yesterday's debacle in New York, Tomlin remained even-keeled, and that's something that isn't sitting well with Steelers Nation. I have no problem with his lack of emotion. Willie Colon didn't get abused because he didn't have a fire in his belly. He's simply just not that good. It wasn't motivation that Sean Mahan needed to at least get a few stalemates against Jets nose tackle Dwayne Robertson, it was functional playing strength and a heavier anchor. There's no coaching remedy for a player who simply lacks the tools. Tomlin will coach the way he coaches. Anyone expecting him to suddenly change stripes and wear his emotions on his sleeve is going to be disappointed. Tomlin's approach is the kind of coaching style that will be praised during big wins and ridiculed in big losses. Knute Rockne speeches and Marty Shottenheimer stares don't win football games, and if they do you've got the wrong players.
If there's one thing Tomlin hasn't done so far, it's fool with the status quo as far as his team is concerned. That's something he'll gain a feel for as time goes on as well. The offensive line is a test right now for him, and it will be interesting to see how he handles things until the end of the season. My guess is that taking more losses is the only way he's going to make dramatic changes. The offensive line was the biggest issue on the team in offseason, the biggest issue during the preseason and has been an issue in every single game the Steelers have played this season, win or lose. That's the fault of three people: Kevin Colbert, Bruce Arians and Larry Zierlein. I don't lay the OL problems on Tomlin - it's not his area of expertise, and he's likely working on the advice of others.
Arians is responsible because he's the holdover. He should have had an idea about what they had. Zierlein sat by idly while he hid from his own "issue" this offseason.
They all failed, but I hold Colbert responsible for most of the problems.
Colbert should have acted more decisively to actually improve the offensive line over what it was last year.
Instead, he ensured that it would get worse. He expected a journeyman who hadn't played center in two seasons would adequately replace Jeff Hartings, perhaps the most underrated Steelers player of all time. The entire Steelers' offense as it is currently configured depends on the center to block the nose tackle without help. Sean Mahan just isn't that type of center, leaving the team with two options: change the blocking schemes, or find a new center. Neither can happen mid-stream. Right guard Kendall Simmons has been laughable in his ineptitude for most of the year. Instead of making him earn his money in front of the new staff, Simmons was lavished with an extension simply because the front office panicked at the thought of losing both starting guards after 2008. Willie Colon is over-matched at right tackle, failing to provide any kind of push in the running game and showing none of the supposed pass protection prowess that was the sole reason for his elevation to starter. Colbert has spent a bunch of 3rd and 4th round picks on tackles with major flaws. Colon's major flaw is his lack of arm length. Flawed tackles are worthless in the NFL.
What could have been done last offseason to improve the OL? Not much, and I don't believe that throwing more later-round picks would have been the answer.
The problem goes deeper, to the drafts that produced middling talents that haven't helped produce depth, future starters or the kinds of sleepers that other teams seem to find and plug in to offenses without skipping a beat.
Colbert gets a pass from the media because his first round picks tend to pan out and undrafted free agents make the team year after year. What about rounds 2-7, Kevin? That's where teams are built, and that's especially were offensive lines are built.
It's up to Colbert (likely with more input from Tomlin this year) to concoct a brilliant plan this offseason to resolve the issues he has created.
The Fine Five
1. New England
No one is even close to them right now, and they play like professional assassins.
2. Green Bay
Forget Brett Favre. They have the best, most versatile defensive line in football. Aaron Kampman. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Cullen Jenkins. Corey Williams. Johnny Jolly. Ryan Pickett. And last year's first rounder, Justin Harrell, is riding the pine. Sick.
If you look at the Cowboy's offensive line on paper, it doesn't look that impressive aside from Flozell Adams. But in games, where it matters, they give Tony Romo all the time he needs and create plenty of holes for the running game to succeed.
Wow, they looked ordinary against the Chiefs. Even their healthy star receivers were busy dropping passes. They'll lose 2 more games before the end of the regular season.
Forget Pittsburgh/New England. Pittsburgh/Jacksonville is the bigger game. They're the Steelers' peers, not the Pats.
Quotes of the Week
"We are a young team. We are trying to develop and get better."
- Hines Ward, conceding what we all should have known.
The Awards Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Santonio Holmes. The Steelers' receivers are beyond ordinary when he's not in the game. Holmes is the Steelers' second most important offensive player behind Ben Roethlisberger.
Defensive Player(s) of the Week
Deshea Townsend. He drew Jerricho Cotchery for most of the game, and held him to one reception for 5 yards. He also recorded an interception, his second of the season.
Special Teams Player of the Week This award has been canceled.
Goat of the Week
Willie Colon. He was abused all night long. He gave up sacks in pass protection, and played on his own side of the line of scrimmage in the running game. It's time for the Colon experiment to come to an end, either right now by inserting Max Starks or in the offseason by finding a legitimate tackle to pair with Marvel Smith. I'm done wondering whether Colon is better than Starks. I'm now wondering if Colon is better than Trai Essex.
Stat of the Week
Over the past two seasons, the Steelers are 7-2 in games started by Anthony Smith, and have given up less than 10 points in 4 of those games.
Factoid of the Week That I Hope Interests Someone Besides Me
No matter what you think, never drop your superstitions because you underrate the Steelers' opponents.
Over the prior three divisional wins, I acquired quite a collection of superstitions, rituals that became a mentally necessary guarantee of a winning Steelers weekend.
With the Jets on the schedule, I figured it was a good time to drop a bunch of them, so I let all of the non-game-time stuff slide. A host of them were tossed out the window because, as a logical person, superstitions are ridiculous, right?
Well, I guess not. I'll be right back to being an OCD slave this weekend in anticipation of the Monday nighter. Or maybe I didn't drop enough of them or something.
Ten Things I Know I Think
1. Hines Ward is a #3 receiver, Nate Washington is a #4 receiver, and Cedrick Wilson is an Arena League receiver. Help is needed this offseason, big time. Ward is good for one very significant drop a game all of the sudden. When the line can't protect and the wideouts can't get open, the quarterback is toast.
2. I have three beefs with Bruce Arians:
- Not going to the no-huddle
- Not using screens, flares or short, quick passes to offset the Jets pass rush (you know, JV football stuff that teams do when they can't protect their QB)
- Very predictable on first down
That said, I can't form a solid opinion on Arians' play calling until there's a passable offensive line. Josh McDaniels (offensive coordinator) in New England doesn't have to spend his game day trying to work around his oline. He can simply run the play he wants to call at the time he wants to call it.
Arians likes to attack. He likes to dictate. He can't do that with this offensive line.
3. These pooch kickoffs are going to become a problem against better teams. Conceding the ball to the other team on the 35 yard line is a cop-out, a disappointment and a poor long term solution to last week's problems for a team that is supposed to compete for a championship.
4. If such a thing as playing down to the competition exists, the Steelers are certainly guilty of it. The only reassurance is the fact that there won't be any 1-8 teams in the playoffs. To date, the Steelers have been favored in every game they have played. It will be interesting to see how they respond to being the underdog on December 9th, which has devolved from "they can match up" to "any given Sunday" in 7 short days.
5. It was sad to see the 35 game streak without a 100 yard rusher come to an end, but it's not like the Steelers haven't been gashed in the past couple of seasons by certain teams. The Steelers benefited from teams abandoning the running game, something the Jets were smart not to do yesterday.
(Around the League)
6. The wacky Cleveland Browns are only a game back in the AFC North race, though it took a Phil Dawson ricochet to seal the deal against the Ravens. The Browns are a plucky bunch - the Steelers can't slip up over the next few weeks, or they'll be risking a certifiable second-half collapse to a team they already swept.
7. If another player would have launched a red-faced rant like the one Tom Brady threw at the referee after a first quarter intentional grounding call last night, he would have been penalized. The Patriots need to be careful. In their pursuit to show up everyone not wearing red, white and blue, the Patriots are making enemies, and I'm not just talking about the opposing teams.
8. The Cardinals put up 35 points on the blighted Bengals while producing only 247 net yards of offense. The Bengals are officially done, and Carson Palmer's confidence is visibly shattered.
Last season, in the middle of a lost campaign, Big Ben fought until the bitter end. Will Palmer show the same kind of fortitude as the season winds down, or will he continue to get worse now that the Bengals are all but mathematically out of it?
9.The Wests are ghost-towns.
10. The Jacksonville Jaguars looked like world beaters with David Garrard back at quarterback. Well, maybe not world beaters, but they certainly looked better. The Jags are taking a chance. Garrard isn't the whole way back from injury, but their season was in jeopardy of slipping away without his return.
The Jags are a little like the 1997 Steelers. Dominant, physical defense. Very good run blocking offensive line. Athletic, strong-armed, scattershot quarterback.
What I Like Tonight, and I Don't Mean LenDale's Cholesterol Level
The Broncos' run defense hasn't improved much statistically since they met the Steelers.
It will be interesting to see how their 8 and 9 man fronts work against the Titans, who will certainly run against those fronts.
Vince Young will need to win this one with his legs for the Titans, because he won't succeed passing the ball against the Denver secondary.