The Steelers' 2009 season was a fairly miserable title defense, ultimately resulting in missing the playoffs. Along the way the Steelers were swept by the Bengals and lost many games to basement dwelling opponents, including the lowly rival Browns. Ideally, the Steelers should be looking towards 2010 with the primary goal of AFC North dominance.
Losing two games to the Bengals was inexcusable, especially at the end of the season where one more win would have guaranteed us a playoff berth. The second game was simply painful, because our Steelers were dominated in that game by the Bengals defense. Ben had time to throw, but no targets - the Bengals have an elite cornerback tandem that forced multiple coverage sacks. This is the game that I think about when people talk about targeting elite secondary players.
The Steelers have the best pass rushing tandem in the game, but could have generated far more sacks or passer hurries if the opposing quarterback was forced to hold the ball after his initial reads. Even a split second would be enough for Harrison to break through uncalled holding, or even justify a called holding penalty. In 2008 Troy Polamalu provided that split second. In 2009 our lack of depth at safety was exposed, and getting another Pro Bowl talent in our defensive backs would provide insurance and potentially create a defense even more dominant than the 2008 squad.
Drafting a ball hawking safety or cornerback in the early rounds would also address our turnover differential issues. The Steelers as a team caught 12 interceptions, putting us in the bottom half of the league. In the 2008 we were tied for 6th with 20 interceptions. In 2009 the Packers led the league with 30 interceptions, and I don't know about you but I'm jealous.
The other defensive complaint is the vulnerability in the shallow middle - our inside linebackers missed coverage or missed tackles resulting in critical, gashing catch and runs from Adrian Peterson (Willie Gay got JACKED UP) and Ray Rice (see it here). Resigning Foote addressed this issue, hopefully. If we don't trade up in the first and Rolando McClain falls to us, he would be a great value pick and ensure that the Steelers will have the best linebacking corps for years to come. However, due to our critical needs in the secondary we may not have the luxury of picking BPA this year.
The defense was a bit brittle in 2009, but it still felt like only a down year for a great defense. The offensive performance was, to put it simply, frustrating. Our most successful games rushing (and our most successful games in the red zone) were in the first half of the season when Mendenhall broke out against the Chargers and the Broncos. Those teams were weak against the run, but not quite as weak as the BROWNS RAIDERS AND CHIEFS. Failure to take advantage of these weak opponents was a gameplan problem, not personnel, and Arians and Tomlin share the blame.
The best passing game of the year was obviously the Packers game. Roethlisberger and his elite receivers had an all time great performance against a decimated Packer secondary. Sadly, 500 yard passing games may not be possible going forward with the departure of Holmes. We still have plenty of dangerous targets so drafting another receiver is a low priority.
The weaknesses of the Steelers' 2009 offense are hard to describe. I would call it too one-dimensional overall, their best and most-used trick being the spread offense. Spread will generally generate yardage but struggles in the red zone where there is less room to "spread" out. Teams that excel in coverage, such as the Bengals, had our number. We certainly have spread personnel so I don't think incorporating it as a major part of our offense is a bad idea, we just need more strengths and more flexibility. Our offense was built around Roethlisberger, and trading him away would no doubt result in a lackluster offensive season. It may still be worth it in the long run.
Our offensive skill position players had great years in 2009, so most people point towards the offensive line as the most pressing area of need on the team. Not a bad idea at all, as Big Ben was sacked 50 times last year and the extremely promising Rashard Mendenhall would certainly benefit from big bodies up front. Our run game might be better served by making use of a fullback. I'd like to see an edge runner line up in our backfield with Mendenhall, and give our offense a little more unpredictability.
The offense could have helped the defense more by closing out games like the Cowher-era Steelers. 4th quarter turnaround losses were the biggest disappointment in 2009, and our passing offense just couldn't run down the clock fast enough. Oddly enough, we ranked third in the league in time of possession. That's great, but a little more would have made our good defense look a lot better. This is another argument for drafting Iupati or Pouncey, but adding a fullback might have been enough to score a few more running first downs. Winning the turnover battle would also make a huge difference.
I want to mention special teams in passing. They sucked. Do better next year guys, okay?
Where do the Steelers go from here? How do they decide what is more necessary, a defensive back or an offensive lineman? Let's look at the 1st round prospects:
Defensive backs: Eric Berry, Joe Haden, Earl Thomas, Taylor Mays, Kyle Wilson
Interior O-Line: Iupati, Pouncey
Offensive Tackles: Russel Okung, Trent Williams, Brian Bulaga, Anthony Davis, Bruce Campbell
I wouldn't take Taylor Mays, since we're looking for a ball hawk. I'd trade down to pick Iupati, Pouncey, or Wilson if no other prospects are available at 18. Thomas is the most likely to fall and would be a sweet spot pick, but he may get picked anywhere from 10 to 20.
I'm not high on Bulaga or Campbell, and our tackles are actually decent. The elite tackles are not going to fall, since so many teams are desperate for pass protection.
If it comes down to a choice between an offensive lineman and defensive back of equal value, we have to pick defensive back. Better schemes can protect Ben and block for Rashard. We need secondary talent to create turnovers, create coverage sacks, get the defense off the field and put our offense in a position to score. We can resign Faneca if we have to.