Does anybody else still get a tear in their eyes when reliving the Superbowl?
With the NFL Draft just over a month away, I thought it would be the perfect time to bring out a State of the Franchise, highlighting our successes from last season, our coaching staff, free agent departures and re-signings, pieces of our team that need replacing/upgrading, and how the upcoming season is shaping up for us already, as well as any other little issues that may be present in the Franchise.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, were set to play what was the NFL's hardest regular season schedule in the last 25 years. We were set to play the Browns twice - after they emerged last season as a pretty reasonable threat (yet we all know how that turned out) - as well as the Ravens twice (the ones who ACTUALLY emerged as a reasonable threat to the AFCN crown) from our own division. Then we also had to play against the AFC South, boasting perennial playoff teams Indianapolis, Jacksonville (who defeated us twice the previous season), as well as the Titans, who surprised many in becoming the top team in that division by seasons end. Then there were the Patriots coming off an 18-1 season, as well as playing the NFC East, which boasted 3 of last seasons playoff teams. All up, we had a tough mission ahead of us.
We all know how it ended.
So what holds for the defending Superbowl Champs now?
Lets take a look, at the State of the Franchise: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers lost a mere four games last season. Which was a welcome surprise, because we managed to shake off the losses to weaker teams where we played down to their level. The four teams we lost to were Indianapolis Colts - Playoff calibre team, 2 years removed from a Superbowl win, the New York Giants, defending Superbowl champs nonetheless, Philadelphia Eagles - who would end up going to the NFC Championship game, and the Tennesse Titans, who finished the season with the best regular season record in the league of 13-3.
So of course I didnt like losing any of those games, and the New York one really stung, but in the end, there are no embarrassing losses up there.
We went a perfect 6-0 in the division, something we hadnt done since the 2002 season. We went 6-2 both on the road and at home.
After gaining the 2nd seed in the AFC, we won convincingly against the Chargers, followed it up with a 3rd victory of the season over the Ravens - no easy feat - en route to the Superbowl, where we ultimately came out Champs in one of the most memorable Superbowls of recent memory.
Mike Tomlin, Head Coach:
Since becoming our head coach, Mike Tomlin has led us to back to back AFC North titles, as well as a 22-10 regular season record, plus a 3-1 record in the playoffs. This past season, he became the 2nd African American head coach to win the Superbowl, as well as the youngest EVER head coach to win the big game. It took him just two seasons to bring home a Lombardi, like each of his predecessors, Cowher and Noll, did. The monkey - if there even was one - has been well and truly thrown off his back. Instead of walking past the trophy cabinet at Steelers HQ, and seeing 5 trophies reminding him of his duties, he can now walk past a cabinet of 6, and see a trophy that will remind him of his own accomplishments. He brought a trophy home to Pittsburgh, where he will now be loved forever. Under Tomlin, who was a previous defensive backs coach at Tampa Bay (when they won the Superbowl) and a Defensive Co-Ordinator at Minnesota, our Defense has been maintained, and this season, our defensive backs played much better than usual, and I think you can attribute a lot of that to Tomlin working side by side with LeBeau. Its amazing to think that Tomlin has room to improve in only his third season as our Head Coach, and I have strong reason to believe, that this man will retire with more than just the one Lombardi.
Bruce Arians, Offensive Co-ordinator:
Bruce Arians, sometimes his play calling makes us question him, but we won a ring with him, so we gotta give him a bit of credit. In the 2007 season our Offense was 17th in Total Yards, 22nd in passing and 3rd in rushing. A combination of injuries and inexperience caused our Offense to go backwards in the 2008 season finishing 22nd in Total yards, 17th in passing, and 23rd in rushing. (Stats via NFL.com). The fact we won a Superbowl with Arians calling the plays probably saved him, but he now has to go forward, and I expect our Offense to be in the top 15 across the board, and I want to see our running game back inside the top 10 at least.
Dick LeBeau, Defensive Co-ordinator:
Dick LeBeau is god. This guy deserves to be inducted into the Hall of Fame some day. No doubt one of the most brilliant defensive minds, wait I'll go one step further. I believe he is THE GREATEST defensive mind of all time when it comes to the NFL. LeBeaus 2008 Steeler Defense brought back Blitzburgh, as we were 2nd in the league with 51 sacks (Dallas, 59). And Im sure Steeler Nation agrees with me when i say there were many more sacks that would have happened if Woodley and Harrison were not held so often. The defense led the league in total yards, allowing just 237.2 yards a game, passing yards, allowing only 156.9 ypg, and came a close 2nd in rushing defence, allowing a mere 80.2 yards per game. (NFL.com stats). Also note that we were one of only two teams (the other being Cincinatti - surprisingly) to hold big Brandon Jacobs under 3 ypc, and we also held him without a touchdown. Compare that to the Ravens so called amazing run defense who gave him 70+ yards and 2 touchdowns as well as 6.6 ypc. Under both LeBeau and Tomlins guidance, we boast some of the best young talent at Linebacker, in Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, who should both dominate this upcoming season.
FREE AGENT DEPARTURES:
Bryant McFadden, CB, Now with the Arizona Cardinals
Nate Washington, WR, Now with Tennessee Titans
Anthong Smith, FS, Now with Green Bay Packer
Obviously the loss of McFadden hurt, he was a solid corner coming into his own. We still have players like Gay who can step up, or Townsend, and we will likely address CB in the draft. Nate leaves a minor hole, as we have Sweed and Baker who the coaches will seemingly give the chance to. Dont be surprised to see us draft a WR from ROund 4,5,6,7. Anthony Smith, dont let the door hit you on the way out. Youll be out of the league in a few years if you dont change youre attitude
FREE AGENTS YET TO RE-SIGN OR SIGN ELSEWHERE:
Charlie Batch, QB
Byron Leftwich, QB
Mitch Berger, P
Jon Dekker, TE
Keyaron Fox, LB
Anthony Madison, CB
Orpheus Roye, DE
Kendall Simmons, OG (Released)
Marvel Smith, OT
None of these remaining players are likely to be retained now, maybe Madison for Special Teams, and possibly Fox. Luckily for us, no real clear cut starters were in their contract year, so next season the majority of our core from the Superbowl winning team will return.
Willie Colon, OT
Andre Frazier, LB
Arnold Harrison, LB
Chris Kemoeatu, OG
Sean McHugh, TE
Trai Essex, OT
Fernando Bryant, CB
We keep OLine starters Kemoeatu and Colon, both who really need to prove their woth. Kemo signed a multiyear deal, so the coaches obviously see something they like. Colon should be replaced by a rookie starter this season, bit he is cheap as a backup with starting experience. Frazier and Harrison will again be our Special Team Linebackers.
PLACES THAT NEED ATTENTION/UPGRADING/REPLACING:
Wide Receiver: With the departure of Nate Washington, we need a new #3 WR, which seems to be Limas Sweeds to lose at this point. Dallas baker will likely be the #4, although the Steelers will most likely draft a WR to compete for that 4th spot.
Offensive Line: After many expected the Steelers to do a complete overhaul of our O-Line, we have actually brought back the entire line and signed no free agents. I expect 2 of our first 3 draft picks to be either OT, C, or OG.
Defensive Line: Not as major of a priority, yet all three of our starting DLineman are into their 30's, so now would be a good time to draft a DLineman reasonably early, and start grooming him for the future. Eason, Hoke and Kirschke are our backup DLineman, and they are all over 30 as well, so with not many pieces being needed, expect us to draft at least one defensive lineman.
Cornerback: McFaddens departure leaves a gap, but we have Will gay ready and willing to step up and also Townsend. I expect us to draft a CB in the draft and begin getting him ready for the #3 corner spot before Townsend hangs up his cleats
Fullback: Carey Davis needs to step his game up. Hes not very good at picking up the pass rush, or leading Parker or whatever RB to daylight. Not a necessity, but I think its definitly a position needing an upgrade.
Obviously, the Steelers are well primed for another Superbowl run. Assuming we lose no major majors cogs to our team (e.g. Roethlisberger, Harrsion, Polamalu etc) to injury, we should be very set to get back to the playoffs. Our schedule is much easier than last year (on paper it is at least), as we play the Bengals, Browns and Ravens twice obviously, but we also have some tough teams at home which is good, such as the Titans, Chargers, Packers and Vikings. We play lowly teams on the road such as the Chiefs, Lions, Bears and Dolphins. We are looking pretty good from that respect. We have very good depth at most positions, and those which we dont should be addressed in the draft.
The division should be a lock IMO, because the Bengals and Browns dont look solid enough on paper to challenge, plus the Ravens lost Rex Ryan, as well as a few key defensive players, as well as a lot of depth. I dont expect the Ravens defense to be as punishing as last year.
The Steelers defense is still very much capable of holding onto leads, and I am hoping and expecting for a better performance from our Offense this year.
All is looking good for the Steelers. The quest for #7 begins soon