Seventh Heaven in 2010?

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Factors that could contribute to a championship run this season

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers have already been written off as championship contenders for the 2010 season. This is promising news. If you have been following this franchise for a while you know that the Black and Gold have not been particularly good front runners over the past few decades, with the 2009 season being only the latest example of how high expectations usually lead to disappointment.

What follows is summary of the conditions that could lead to that seventh Lombardi Trophy this year.

Isn’t it a bit early, you may ask, to be addressing such concerns? It is more than a month before training camp begins. Well, from my perspective, that’s the challenge. I’ve been busy working on a contribution to the MSP Annual (an interview with four time SB champion Randy Grossman. Hope you like it.), but watching the events of the winter and spring with great interest. I’m not making any concrete predictions here. Someone could step in a hole on the first day of camp and change the trajectory of the entire season. What I’m aiming for is to illuminate a set of conditions that can be tracked throughout the season (argued and debated every step of the way) and could, if enough of them fall the right way lead to a championship run. Surprisingly little has to go right in order to be successful and, conversely, surprisingly little has to go wrong in order to fail. When speaking of the success of the Steelers teams of the ‘70s Randy Grossman stated that you have to be good, but you have to be lucky too. But before moving forward, a couple of disclaimers.

 

Injuries. It is unrealistic that in today’s NFL that any team can escape injuries. And I agree with Coach Tomlin that injuries should not change the expectations or goals of the team. We can hope, however, that what injuries do come happen sooner rather than later in the season, are not of the catastrophic variety (season or career ending) and touch lightly if at all on certain key positions.

Distractions. Particularly important this year, let’s hope we have already peaked in the knucklehead department for this season. No police blotter stuff, no failed substance abuse tests, no psychological or emotional breakdowns, no silly behavior over money, contracts or roles on the team. Unlike injuries these are avoidable. Let’s hope that no one becomes what Tomlin likes to refer to as ‘the Guy’, beyond our current problems.

The Chip. Saw a report on the NFL Network recently about the AFC North. All the talk was about how much the Cincinnati Bengals had improved and whether they could hold off the Ravens for the division title. Pittsburgh wasn’t even mentioned. Now, talk is that this is only reasonable given the Roethlisberger suspension and the release of Holmes. I’m prepared to argue otherwise a little further down. In the meantime, the pundits and others in the media are singing the praises of the Titans, Colts, Chargers, Dolphins, Patriots (always), and the new ‘It’ team, the Jets. [AFC] And in the other conference the defending champion Saints, Vikings, Bears, Falcons, 49ers, Packers and Cowboys (always) will be spoken of as Super Bowl contenders.

Returning to the AFC North I have also heard much about Flacco and Palmer, Boldin and Ocho Cinco, Rice and Benson, and the “ageless” Ray Lewis. (When a Steeler reaches age 30 he has one foot in the grave, while the Ray Lewis’ of the world become ‘ageless’. This is not just a problem with the punditry. I’ve heard a lot of that from the BTSC crowd as well.). Now we all have egos like the next guy and would love to hear someone sing the praises of the Black and Gold. But if you have been a Steelers fan for any length of time you’ll realize that there is nothing particularly unusual in what’s going on. It is savvy marketing to provide hope in order to attract the casual fan to the game. A casual Steelers fan is something of an oxymoron. We’re going to show up regardless, so we are not catered to.

The really good news is that somewhere Hines Ward is seething. One of the things that elite athletes are pretty good at is to take real and imagined slights and through a process of psychological alchemy transform them into outrageous acts of disrespect. The really great thing about this is that the slight doesn’t have to be real or rational. It makes total sense to suggest that losing your starting quarterback for up to six weeks should significantly weaken a team’s chances for a championship. To suggest otherwise; that would be disrespectful. Nonetheless, count on the Steelers being a very angry football team come Labor Day. There are too many people on that roster with Super Bowl rings (including newcomer Wil Allen ); too many with multiple Super Bowl rings for them to not be in a major league snit in being consigned to the middle of the pack among contenders. Much of the psychological fuel necessary for a successful run will come from this factor alone. The challenge for us fans is to bite our tongues and enjoy that ride under the radar until a couple of weeks or so after Ben returns to the team.

 

The Quarterback Corps. No team in football is better suited to successfully ride out the early season handicap of Ben’s suspension than Pittsburgh. For a handful of NFL teams, such as Buffalo, the addition of a Charlie Batch would either improve their quarterback situation or would maintain the status quo. And Batch is our #4 guy and likely the odd man out. Unlike teams like New England or Indianapolis where the #1 guy may be backed up with a stiff, or a committee of stiffs, two of our guys have been starters elsewhere, and in the case of Leftwich, with playoff caliber teams; while Dixon is merely a former Heisman contender in college with a huge upside. Therefore, it is not just whistling past the graveyard bravado to parrot Tomlin and suggest that the expectations should not change just because Ben won’t be around those first set of games.

In addition, though Ben is clearly the best of the bunch, there are certain specific aspects of their games where both Leftwich and Dixon are better than Ben. I believe for example that Byron has a stronger arm than Ben, and might be able to connect more effectively with Mike Wallace on the deep ball. On the other hand, Dixon’s mobility and speed is such that if he so chooses once he escapes the pocket he is a threat to score ala Michael Vick. Like many in Steelers Nation I was rooting for Dixon to be handed the starter’s job throughout the spring. Having thought it through a bit more I think the smart move is to give the job to Leftwich. Byron is an accomplished veteran, as familiar with the system as Dixon, well liked and respected by his teammates. In looking at the early schedule he is far more familiar than Dixon with Tennessee, a divisional opponent whom he played against twice a year when he was with Jacksonville, and he just finished a one year tenure at TampaBay. The situation involves less risk and pressure for Byron, and he is clearly more experienced, not just in the overall sense, but also against two of the opponents that he would face.

His one major liability, lack of mobility (and perhaps a slow release) could be compensated for with a robust running attack, if they have the imagination and nerve, a package of plays where Dennis could be utilized ala Wildcat as a decoy or a weapon. The case for Dennis is strong and I would be just as pleased if he were on the field instead. In either case a .500 record or better over the course of Ben’s suspension is not just reasonable, but should be expected given the talent. In any case Ben’s absence in and of itself is insufficient cause to write off the Steelers. Now if it’s a maximum suspension based upon Ben’s inability to get his act together, well that’s another story; a distraction. The only downside here is that it’s unlikely that they will be able to keep all four. Smart money is that it will be Batch, a real shame given his popularity and leadership valued by players, management and fans alike.

 

Tomlin. There are stories surfacing that there might be some hesitation concerning getting a deal done on a contract extension and all the intrigue that can be associated with hesitation. As others have mentioned on the site, I’m not sure I buy into the notion that there is some problem between Tomlin and the front office. Seems more like the wishful thinking of journalists that have over a month of empty space to fill in the sports section than a real issue. However, if true, then that certainly qualifies as a distraction that could have a negative impact on team performance. It is also possible that what is being reflected in the process is a tangible difference between how Art II handles things and how they were handled by his father. And, quite frankly, what better time to address the issue than the quiet time between now and camp.

 

Leadership. Two of last year’s team captains were Ben Roethlisberger and Jeff Reed. Think about that for a moment. Team captains. You would hope that team captains would manage to stay off the police blotter, or at least do so less often than other members of the team. Fortunately, leadership can reside in more places than in positions such as captain of the team. And one area where Pittsburgh may be as deep as any team in the league is in the area of leadership. Let’s talk first about the ring bearers. There are 40 on the current roster that have been part of at least one championship team (that includes Wil Allen who won a Lombardi with TampaBay). Almost half of that number have two rings. Half of the training camp roster will have been to Promised Land. They know what it takes and won’t be satisfied with anything less. Then there are the returning veterans Larry Foote and Antwan Randle El. Foote is a talkative type who can help Farrior and Harrison ride herd over the linebackers and the rest of the defense in the locker room. Randle El, an ex-quarterback in both resume and temperament has already demonstrated leadership in that he stepped up and met with reporters during spring drills to address the  touchy subject of Ben Roethlisberger. You would think that he didn’t have to do that considering that he had just returned to the team. It would have been much easier to simply beg off in that regard. The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes to me. He can be counted on to complement and support Hines Ward with the receivers and the offense in general.

Both players bring additional experience having served in Detroit and Washington respectively, two hell hole football cultures that certainly enhanced their appreciation of Pittsburgh and the opportunities still present here.  With Ben completely separated from the team for a month to six weeks expect both Byron and Charlie to step up and be much more assertive in team leadership. Expect a lot from Charlie, for as long as he is around, because besides on field leadership Batch is the union rep for the team and negotiations for the new CBA will be ongoing. Another reason to miss him when he’s gone. Quiet leadership can also be expected from Keyaron Fox, Aaron Smith, Troy Polamalu, Max Starks, Casey Hampton and Ryan Clark. Wil Allen was a special teams captain with the Buccaneers. Altogether you have a team that is mature, tested and hungry. Even with the current troubles you would be hard pressed to think of another team that is this stable and has as great a reservoir of experience, talent and temperament to make a championship run.

 

The Third Leg. By that I mean the third leg of the stool. How will special teams measure up relative to the offense and defense? What will new assistant coach Al Everest bring to the table? What I find promising is that he has been doing this for a long time so he’s not just passing through paying dues on his way to other things. And if he sucked at this we would have known it by now. While the O and D took their share of knocks for last year’s disappointing season, special teams played a huge role in that failure. The good news is that there exists a solid foundation in the persons of kicker Jeff Reed and punter Daniel Sepulveda. Stefan Logan disappointed by not reminding anyone of Josh Cribbs or Devon Hester, but his performance was solid if not spectacular. The bar should certainly be set higher this year and despite the loss of Santonio Holmes there are plenty of candidates that show some promise of generating touchdowns through STs. As mentioned previously, as a former special teams captain it is hoped that Allen embraces a similar role as his ticket not just on to the roster but to a position of leadership as well. Hopefully Coach Everest will be able to inject the fundamentals and the necessary esprit to keep other teams from gouging and gashing their way to cheap points or favorable field position. Boringly obvious, I know, but absolutely essential.

 

Offensive Line. I was told once that sometimes things have to change a great deal before even a portion of that change will be noticed. For years we have been accustomed to seeing the O-line as an area of weakness. They have been blamed for both an anemic running game and the high number of sacks that Ben has had to endure. Upon closer examination we find a more complicated story. Few offensive lines are very effective after five seconds. Ben himself has acknowledged that his stubbornness has as much to do with the sack totals as anything. The issues with the running game have as much to do with lack of commitment as anything.

So what will be the state of the offensive line this season? More specifically, will it be good enough to do its part in sustaining a championship run? The hysteria in the BTSC community over the alleged incompetence of Max Starks has evaporated since he was permanently installed in the critical left tackle position. His performance has been steady and he has emerged as a leader of this crew. Kemoeatu has been steadily coming along and is beginning to be recognized as one of the better guards around. Colon, another who has endured significant criticism in BTSC circles, is also seen as solid by more knowledgeable people than I. Hartwig is okay, but noises are being made that Pouncey is functioning at a level way in advance of expectations and could challenge for the center position immediately. This would be extraordinarily good news; not just for the short term, but might signal that the next great Steelers center in the mold of Webster or Dawson may be at hand. In any case, the addition of Pouncey at right guard or center is likely to result in an immediate strengthening of the O-line.

Depth and competition will be provided by a maturing Foster, Essex, Urbik, Hills and hopefully, newcomer Scott may contribute as well. With Coach Z gone (don’t have him to kick around anymore) and some new leadership this will be an exciting time. This group should be watched carefully.

 

Timmons (once again). Last year was supposed to be the breakout for Lawrence Timmons. That expectation was probably part of the reason that Larry Foote fled to Detroit. Timmons didn’t bomb, he played through an ankle injury that curtailed his effectiveness. Potentially the most talented and explosive of the team’s linebackers, the possibility of a breakthrough is still very much in play. Such a development could have a powerful impact upon the defense, particularly pass defense. Timmons fully actualized could be just as difficult to handle as Troy, effective in both rushing and coverage he would have to be accounted for every play. Much was made of the absence of Troy and Aaron Smith, but Timmons ineffectiveness was also a factor in last years defense (and, perhaps, a factor in the perceived degradation of James Farrior’s play). A lot of people have assumed that the return of Foote was in response to a declining Farrior. It may be that he is an insurance policy against the ineffectiveness of Farrior or Timmons. Depth is a wonderful thing.

 

Wallace. Santonio Holmes will certainly be missed on the field, but his loss does help to solve the problem of how to get more exposure for the emerging Mike Wallace. Wallace is hardly a finished project yet, but in his rookie season he quickly outpaced team and fan expectations. His development will certainly be accelerated with full time play in the offense. Hines Ward, when asked by the NFL Network, opined that he was expecting a big breakout year for Wallace. The loss of Holmes is another reason that the Steelers have been written off this year. I don’t subscribe to the notion that there will be a serious falloff in the receiving corps this year, unless it is related to unforeseen injury. Randle El was not properly utilized by the Redskins, he could be very effective the second time around. The feedback on rookies Sanders and Brown has been very positive. Maybe one could be this year’s Wallace. It makes you wonder what sort of traffic jam would have occurred if Tone hadn’t been released and Sweed was healthy. I argue against any significant decline in the passing game beyond any discontinuity associated with the suspension of Ben and reemphasis on the running game. Let’s also remember that if we had kept Tone, he would lost for a time to suspension as well, plus the likelihood of more distractions from his disorganized life.

 

The other running back. This should be Rashard’s best year yet. But a first class running attack requires more; not just situational substitutes, but a change of pace back who can also carry the full weight of the running game in the case of injury. Dwyer, Redman and Summers are the most likely candidates at the moment. My preference at the moment is for Dwyer but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if one of the others really stepped up and showed out. Until then the running game hangs by the thread of Mendenhall’s continued good health and effectiveness. That’s just too thin.

 

Ben. If I had been dealt Ben’s hand when I was his age I might have been an asshole too. The difference between Ben and a lot of elite quarterbacks is that they all had some humbling, grounding experiences before they experienced the bright lights of stardom and the accompanying distortions of reality. The only other exception I can think of is…Michael Vick. Hmmm. So Ben is fortunate that he’s had this little intervention before he ended up in Leavenworth (or some equivalent). The guess here is that he will land on his feet and be both a better person and athlete for the experience. If I’m right I don’t think you would want to play Pittsburgh this coming December. Talk about a chip! Success is the best revenge they say. All the laughing stops if he wins another Super Bowl. Don’t think for a minute that this hasn’t already been discussed in the Roethlisberger camp and within the team. I guess that could construed as cynical. I don’t see it that way. The culture surrounding celebrities and particularly athletes is about as hypocritical as it gets. Let me get off the soapbox before I am fully on it.

 

The Window. Long time denizens of BTSC remember threads where there was general agreement that the 2010-11 time frame was the prime window of opportunity for the Steelers. Ben, Troy, Heath and Ike would be in their prime, Hines, Snack, Smith, Farrior and the rest of the over 30 crowd would still have enough tread on the tires to perform at a high level and the front office would keep the new talent coming. It made sense then, it makes sense now. As they realize that there aren’t that many bites of the apple left the older players in particular (and the young ones who realize that they need help) will be acting with increasing desperation. No one knows if they’ll even be a season next year. If so it could a half dozen years or more before an opportunity of this quality presents itself again. Decades can pass between Super Bowl opportunities. It continues to be a credit to the organization that we can delude ourselves into thinking that we can go nearly every year.

 

The Competition. It won’t be easy. The Bengals, Ravens and Browns have all improved. The AFC North may well be the toughest division in football this year. They realize too that this is likely to be the last year under the current set of rules governing issues such as free agency. And that next season is not guaranteed. This is it folks. There will be a future but it is hardly foreseeable at this particular juncture. I think we may be in for one helluva run.

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