But now, the Steeler season is over, my self-imposed Steeler posting hiatus has expired, so now it's time to reflect.
So, to repeat the title, what the hell happened ??
First of all, let's stay off of the field to begin the analysis.
- Coaching - As I opined when Coach Cowher announced his resignation on Jan. 5th, he had, in my view, lost his edge. In fact, I believe he'd lost it about 3 years ago. But specifically this past year, Cowher made several questionable coaching decisions, such as going for it on 4th downs that were much more risky than ones he'd done in the past. The continued placement of Santonio Holmes as punt returner, as well as Ike Taylor as starting cornerback, were head-scratchers indeed.
- Playcalling - The Steelers playcalling has become so predictable, it's not even funny. Ya know, pass on 1st down, run on 2nd down after the 1st down pass is incomplete, then incomplete pass after the predictable run on 2nd down is stuffed, then punt. But to be more specific, what really irks me is the playcalling when the Steelers are facing the tough blitz-crazy defenses like Jacksonville and Baltimore. Everyone in the free world knew what those teams were doing every snap, blitz, blitz, and more blitz. But what the Steelers didn't do, and in fact what they've NEVER done since the Ravens' defense has come to prominence, is counteract those blitzes with plays to punish those teams, with plays such as draws, screens, and slants. They kept calling the same vanilla plays, as if they were playing against a 4-3. That resulted in some brutal hits this year on Ben, and more importantly, resulted in three embarrassing losses to those teams, that included two shutouts.
Now onto the field;
- Quarterback - Wow, Ben had, shall we say, a tough year. I mean, the guy was THIS close to being "the late Ben Roethlisberger". I'm still amazed the guy came out of it with only a cracked up mug, and moreover, I'm still amazed that his face is not deformed in some gruesome way, but that is the marvel of today's medical science. Then as everyone is preparing for the opener, Ben is rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. And then the concussion. So I guess in retrospect, it's really not surprising to see what his stats ended up to be. He led the entire NFL in interceptions with 23, while his QB rating, which was easily in triple digits thus far in his NFL career, crashed down to 75.4. But as I've said a helluva lot of times over the years, if you don't have an offensive line to protect you, I don't care if you're Joe Montana, you won't be a good QB, which leads me to the next item;
- Offensive Line - I think everyone would agree that this was the worst year for a Steelers offensive line in several years. The O-line gave up the 6th most sacks in the NFL this year with 49. Lots of talk around the Steelers blogosphere concerning the play of the two tackles, Marvel Smith and Max Starks. And while they did assist Willie Parker to the be 6th leading rusher in the NFL this year with 1494 yards, that was greatly aided by 2-200 yard games against New Orleans and Cleveland. While those games were certainly noteworthy, including breaking the Steelers' game record, we'd be remiss if we didn't include the duds against Jacksonville (20 yds.), San Diego (57), Atlanta (47), Cleveland (43), Baltimore (22), Tampa (61), and Baltimore again (29). Want another stat for a poor rushing game ? How about the Steelers being 5th in the NFL in passing for 1st downs with 201.
- Wide receivers - I have to admit, I think this group shows a helluva lot of promise in the years ahead. Hines Ward, well, is simply Hines Ward. Clutch as clutch can be. Blocks his ass off. Plays hurt. I also think that Cedrick Wilson could be a good receiver as well, if he's stop bitching after every ball that he doesn't catch. Nate Washington had several big drops, but he made good strides this year. Santonio Holmes, after a slow start, really came on strong at the end of the year. I'd be really surprised if he isn't a starter next year. What we didn't get to see is what Willie Reid can do, both as a WR and as a PR. This group as a whole gets a pass (no pun intended) this year, they didn't win many games, but in the same respect, they didn't lose games either.
- Running backs - As I said earlier, Willie Parker had a good year, statistically, with 1494 yards. But whether it was due to poor playcalling, or poor offensive line play, or whatever else, Parker did not deliver in the important games of the year vs. conference and division opponents. And while it's not fair to completely point the blame on Willie for those poor performances, it cannot be discounted that the failure to run the ball as a whole most definitely was a prime factor in several games this year. Elsewhere, count me as one who thought that Najeh Davenport had a pretty good year, I love this guy's running style. He's as close to Bettis as the Steelers are gonna get, and they'd be stupid for letting him leave. Verron Haynes got hurt and was put on IR pretty early in the year, and after the signing of Davenport, I don't think that was as big a loss as it could have been.
- Defensive Line - This group did what they were paid to do in a 3-4 defense, that being stopping the run. The Steelers were 3rd in the NFL in rushing defense, averaging 88.2 yards per game. Also, two of the three D-linemen got their fair share of sacks as well, with Aaron Smith getting 4.5 sacks, and Brett Keisel getting 5.5. This unit isn't the problem.
- Linebackers - For all of the notoriety and press this group gets, they're full of holes now. First and foremost, they're getting long in the tooth, NFL-wise. Farrior's 32 now, Haggans' 30, Porter will be 30 in March, and Foote is the baby of the group at 26. In my view, that has resulted in more missed tackles, more times of getting blocked vice shedding tackles, and wider gaps in pass coverage. And while they've certainly still done a good job in sacks, with 22 among the group, their pass defense has become a liability. Porter makes $5 million next year, counting $6.6 million against the cap, in the last year of his contract. Gonna be interesting what they do with him, 'cause I don't see him taking any pay cut at all.
- Secondary - Oh boy, I saved the best for last. Personally, I continue to be shocked at the lack of negative coverage that this group gets in the Pittsburgh press. How many times have we seen, not just this year, but for the last several years, a QB throw seemingly at will, at wide receivers that are completely wide-open, all game long. How many times have we seen Ike Taylor or Deshea Townsend bite on the double move ?? How many times have we seen the cornerbacks rush the line, only to miss a makeable tackle which leads to a big gain ?? The Steelers have used 3 high draft picks since '03 on cornerbacks (Taylor, Colclough, McFadden), and yet they still are porous as they've ever been on pass defense. I hate to say it, but this upcoming draft the Steelers need to expend yet another high draft pick on a CB. Probably not a 1st rounder, 'cause I think they need to go LB, but I wouldn't be surprised if they go CB in round 2 or 3.
- Special Teams - Kevin Spencer should be proactive and box up his belongings while he has the chance, 'cause he needs to be GONE. Terrible coverage on both kick and punt returns. In addition, sorry to say, I think BOTH punter Chris Gardocki AND kicker Jeff Reed should be released. Gardocki was 4th from the bottom of the league in gross punting average with only a 41.3 yard average. And although he's a fan favorite, Reed didn't do much better. Reed only got 4 touchbacks out of 76 kickoffs this year, tied for 4th from the bottom of the league. His kickoffs routinely averaged between the 5 and 10 yard line. In addition, his 74.1 pct. average on successful field goals is near the bottom of the league as well. The Steelers should be able to do much better with this group next year.
Well, that's it. Are the Steelers that far away from a playoff team next year ?? Hell no. If they wouldn't have blown the Atlanta, Cincinnatti, and Oakland games last year, they would have been a playoff team this year.