Bumped. Good stuff on a slow news day. Keep the good stuff coming guys and gals! - Michael Bean -
Steeler Nation has had a rough year. We watched our defense slip from mighty to mediocre while opposing quarterbacks with names like Gradkowski and Thigpen padded their stats against our secondary. We watched a half-dozen kickoffs returned for touchdowns, many at critical moments in games we should have already put away. We watched a consistently dominant offense between the 20s suddenly stumble in the red zone time and time again. And worst of all, we watched, helpless right along with the Steelers as they fell inches short of the playoffs.
Then came the offseason: a star receiver traded. A franchise quarterback suspended for at least a quarter of the season, and, some would argue, in danger of permanently losing the support of much of his team's fanbase.
A team that one year ago had to be in the conversation as odds-on favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champs is now showing up in post-draft power rankings in the bottom half of the league. I'm not one to place stock in either system of ranking, but I think the dichotomy speaks to the train of pitfalls the team has faced in the last year and the difficulties it has faced in overcoming them. And as the recent injury to Limas Sweed has made painfully clear, there's no telling what awful setbacks can occur between now and opening day.
So why am I smiling? Why, after a year of disappointment and an offseason that was arguably even more depressing, am I so happy with this team and so optimistic for the future?
I think the answer can be found partly in the description above. I root for a franchise for which a 9-7 season is viewed as a colossal disappointment, a franchise that perennially competes for division titles and has a real, tangible history of reloading with a vengeance when it misses the boat. In an NFL league that pays lip service to parity but is in actuality plagued with consistent bottom-dwellers (Rams, Lions, Browns, Raiders, Chiefs, for example), the Rooneys seem to find ways of keeping our beloved franchise out of the basement. Every single year.
Think about that for a second. There are fans out there dreaming of a 9-7 season, of being within striking distance of the playoffs. I'm too young to remember the days when the Steelers were truly awful, so I'm not even sure I can comprehend what it's like to be a fan of a three-win team. But I don’t think I need that experience to decide I'd rather be hoping the deep and talented Steelers backup QB corps can carry the weight of Ben's 6 game suspension than wondering which of the quarterbacks on my roster can prove worthy of starting at all, and that I'd rather be contemplating who of the talented ILB corps (Farrior, Fox, Timmons, Foote) should get the start on game day than lamenting an overwhelming lack of talent at the position. There are much, much worse problems to face as a front office, and much more dreadful situations to endure as a fan.
But the real reason for my optimism is even more straightforward, and, I think, far more entertaining: we saw some damn good football come out of these Steelers last year. And better yet, much of it came from young, up-and-coming players with room to take their performance to the next level. This board has been so dominated in recent months with the despair for a season that slipped away and the chaotic misadventures of Bluntonio and Big Stupid that I feel it's possible some of the bright, promising spots of '09 have gotten lost in the shuffle. We saw some incredible things, things that made me pump my fist and jump out of my seat, things that made me go back and re-watch highlights a dozen times over. I guess my point is simply that this season wasn't a waste. Far from it.
With that long-winded and somewhat tangential introduction in mind, I ask you all: what moments from the '09 season make you optimistic for the coming year? What moments made you think to yourself (or proclaim obnoxiously to the rival team's fans sitting next to you) "we're going to kick ass in '10?"
I have a couple favorites, and I figured I’d share them with you. Thanks for reading (if you made it this far)!
1) Rashard Mendenhall vs. the Chargers
The whole storyline behind this game was fantastic. Mendenhall's journey from unfortunate ‘08 injury to being labeled a bust by the media and fans (including many on this sight) to sitting for a week in Tomlin's doghouse to finally romping all over the Chargers was almost too good to be true. There was a lot to like in Mendenhall's performance that night, from his decisiveness through the hole to his vision bouncing runs outside, from his willingness to lower a shoulder and finish the play (which frankly surprised me a bit, considering the way his '08 season ended) to his burst in the open field. By my favorite moment? It came on a five-yard sack in the second quarter. Mendenhall sprinted up from his tailback position to absolutely demolish blitzing OLB Shaun Phillips before sneaking out into the flat. True to the way it went much of this season, Justin Hartwig got knocked on his ass by Alphonso Boone and Mendenhall’s efforts to prevent the sack were in vain, but the quickness and instinct he showed getting up to the line to protect Roethlisberger (who lined up under center on that play) and the sheer tenacity of the hit made me cheer even as Ben was being taken to the ground. It was at that moment that I was sold. This guy was a Steeler.
2) Troy Polamalu vs. the Titans
I admit, it's getting hard to remember a healthy '09 version of Troy Polamalu. But if you go back and watch the first couple quarters of opening day's game against the Titans, Troy honestly looks like a cheat code-enabled superhuman. He's simply moving faster than everyone on the field, making tackles that shouldn't be possible in places it shouldn't be possible to get to. On every single play. I haven't watched the tape in a while, but I distinctly remember the color commentators getting so excited with his performance that they pulled out a hokey graph complete with an on-screen stopwatch to illustrate his ridiculous acceleration on one tackle behind the line of scrimmage. And who can forget an interception that I think shows even more athleticism and body control than his Chargers pick last year?
3) Mike Wallace vs. the Packers
While there was a lot to despise about the way our defense played in the game against the Packers, but Mike Wallace's toe-tap as time expired showed us what I think will only become more apparent this year: this guy is clutch. In watching some highlights this offseason, I was struck by how many times Ben looked to Santonio on critical third and fourth down situations (case in point, the fourth down conversion earlier on this same drive). I get this momentary sinking feeling in my stomach, because while Ward is still playing at a high level, his ability to get separation has to be diminishing every year. "Where will Ben go for the clutch catches?" I ask myself. And then I watch this play and breathe a sigh of relief. You don’t get more clutch than that.
4) Chris Kemoeatu vs. the Chargers
Chris Kemoeatu has walked a long and lonely road. He had a tough task, filling the shoes of a hall-of-fame Steeler legend in Faneca. And he didn't exactly rise to the occasion - his '08 season was marred by some pretty atrocious pass blocking and some invisible run blocking. He’s still a work in progress with the pass blocking (though if you watch the video of Mendenhall above, he looks pretty good on that play) but this game against the Chargers was his coming out party as a dominant run blocker. The guy was seriously running people over on every play, often while pulling around the right side like a deranged, out of control cement truck. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
5) LaMarr Woodley vs. the Browns (round II)
I know, I know…this game didn’t go so well. But that’s actually kind of my point. In a game where the entire defense (and offense for that matter) seemed stymied by an amped-up Browns team on a frigid Cleveland night, a night where not just the secondary but even typically solid front-seven players like James Harrison seemed a step too slow, LaMarr came to play. I remember one series where he single-handedly finished off every single play to force a punt. Though LaMarr had more statistically significant games (like the second Ravens game where he had two sacks, a forced fumble and ten total tackles) and made more dramatic splash plays (the super slow-mo fumble recovery TD against Minnesota comes to mind), this Cleveland game stands out in my mind as a testament to the beasty, high-motor effort Woodley brings to the table, even in the face of depressing adversity. Does anyone really doubt this guy has yet to peak?