Wow. What an offseason. I could have been very happy without quite as much drama, but in the end it sure made the weeks fly by. Just a matter of days before show time and, ready or not, the 2010 addition of the Pittsburgh Steelers are about to take the stage. Before addressing some of the issues that face the team and the Nation this fall, some wrap up comments concerning the 2010 pre season.
The Draft. Credit is due to the organization for what appears to be the best draft class in a very long time. Usually there are some disappointments, wasted picks of players that seriously underachieve. These failures are often compensated for by unexpected performances by undrafted free agents and other second tier players who step up. This year it would take unrealistically high expectations to be disappointed with this year's group. I was hoping to see a bit more from Worilds at this point, but that's about as far as my disappointment goes. Pouncey delivered what you hope to get from a first rounder; immediate help and an upgrade at his position. At the lower end Sylvester, Brown and Butler have exceeded expectations. Sanders and, after a very slow start, Dwyer seem to be fulfilling the hopes the organization and the fans placed in them. Consequently, quality contributors; Hartwig, Bailey, and Logan, to name three ended up on the street. Several years will have to pass by before this class will be fully appreciated, but it is not premature to congratulate management for being on the top of their game.
Surging sophomores and others. Almost forgotten in all the good news about the rookie class is the rapid maturation of second year players like Ziggy Hood, Keenan Lewis and Mike Wallace. Not to mention later bloomers such as Tony Hills and Ryan Mundy. Looking at the big picture, as best we can tell in spite of having a number of aging veterans the influx of young talent and their encouraging developmental arc could reduce the likelihood of the team suffering a competitive drop off over the next few years. A lot will depend upon injuries, league economics (CBA) and maintaining the current run of quality personnel decisions including not sticking with older players too long or giving up on younger ones too early.
Injuries. This would have been first on my list before Leftwich went down last week. But as the apparent severity of Byron's injury is reducing, it is still worth mentioning that players and coaches deserve credit for managing the off season program in such a fashion that injuries have been kept at a minimum, particularly in the later half of the summer, and the team enters the season as close to full strength as can be hoped for.
LeBeau. The decision to take the team to Dick LeBeau's Hall of Fame ceremony was an inspired and inspiring decision. It oozed of class and I believe that it will have an impact on this season in a manner that may not seem apparent at this time. If I'm right about this it will be reflected most clearly in performance of the defense as the season evolves.
The quarterback corps. I have been high on our group of qbs for quite some time. Unfortunately, we got to know them a bit too well this summer and discovered that maybe they weren't that good. Specifically, we are all clear now why these guys aren't starters somewhere at the moment. However, I'm pleased where we find ourselves now. I, like many others have been hoping that Dixon would get a legitimate shot at showing what he's got. Let's hope he does a better job with the opportunity than he did in Denver. And while acknowledging that Batch has demonstrated a frightening fragility over the past few seasons I still felt that to dismiss him without at least giving him an opportunity to fight for his position was hasty and premature. If it takes an injury to Leftwich to rectify that situation, well, I'll take justice anywhere I can get it. I believe the way things are panning out will ultimately prove to be more satisfying and less tragic all the way around. For example, because he'll be part of the roster at the beginning of the season, Charlie will get his full salary for the season, regardless of when (if?) he is let go.
Steelers Nation. A tip of the hat to you guys for not taking the bait on the Ben situation. There are those who have hoped for (and still do if you've been watching the headlines carefully the last few days) a big, ugly circus to develop over the whole unfortunate story of Ben's failings. Steelers fans at St Vincent and at the games decided to take the high road (Or perhaps the haters just decided to stay away or otherwise not make a spectacle of things). I think that was a good decision first and foremost for our collective humanity. Second, I think it may be one key to salvaging the season.
Captains. Again, national media is trying to make a big deal of Ben not being selected as team captain. It would have been crazy if he had been selected. By all indications it seems clear that even if the situation in Georgia had not materialized, Ben was not ideal captain material, at least not at this stage of his life. Being a team captain involves more than just quality performance on the field, it is a leadership position, one that should inform the conduct of players both on and off the field. In that sense, not only was the removal of Ben a good sign, but the demotion of Reed and Harrison as well. Miller was a good choice. Fox may have been an even better one.
Predictions. They range from Peter King of SI predicting that the Steelers will win the Super Bowl, to the more common forecast that has the Steelers nosing out the Browns for third place in the AFC Norh. I'm not much on predictions. There are just too many variables such as luck and injuries that no one can reasonably predict. After all, if (the late, lamented) Joe Burnett had caught a ball that had been thrown right into his chest, something that most of the people reading this could have accomplished six or seven out of ten times, and we're not professionals, the Steelers would have been a playoff team last year. Not blaming Burnett, just reiterating what former Steeler Randy Grossman pointed out in my interview of him in the Annual "..the ball just bounces a funny way." I will mention a few things that I think will be important to a playoff run and possible championship, though I hate the King prediction (superstitious).
AFC North arms race. The focus of most people has been on the suspension of Ben and the loss of Santonio Holmes. These are not unreasonable concerns but I do think they have been overplayed storylines. Two things that are not being considered; is that this team has proven to be competitive on the occasions when Ben has not been available, and Santonio would not be available to us these first four games even if he were still with the team. Considering the competition, a .500 record would not be unreasonable even with Ben playing. The real question is whether the Ravens and the Bengals have improved enough to pass the Steelers. To be sure both teams have improved significantly on paper. But as they say; you don't play on paper. The Bengals in particular have to prove to me that they have overcome chemistry and team culture issues. I think they, like the Jets, are particularly vulnerable to reading too much into the accomplishments of the previous year and projecting an automatic higher level of success without taking into account how their players adapt to success and higher expectations, as well as how opponents respond to the challenge of bringing you down. Will Flacco, Boldin, Rice and Whosyourmama prove to be Kryptonite to the Steelers ‘D'? Will an aging Raven's defense be able to keep pace with and shut down a diverse and potent Steelers offense, even without Ben (and later in the year, with him)? The improvements made by the Ravens and Bengals seem even more spectacular because they involve relatively big name free agents (T.O., Boldin).
The Steelers have improved as well, but they've done it the Steeler way; that is with people no one has heard about, like Mike Wallace last year. And because of the drama surrounding Ben and the competition to replace him no attention has been given to the development of the rest of the team. Now I'm one of those guys that likes it when the team sort of hangs out in the weeds, so I'm not too upset that Ravens and Bengals fans are picking over our bones already. Just makes it sweeter when the rapin' and the pillagin' commences. And one more thing; think about it before you start laughing. Every year the Browns manage to rise up in righteous anger and bites someone on the bottom. Last year it was us. Remember this is the NFL. Every team is capable.
Ben's vacation. I had been wondering for months how this was going to be handled. You know, idle hands... I don't know that much about Whitfield, but of what I do know, I'm a fan. I think this will turn out to be quite the challenge for both men. This is gonna be more than just getting or keeping Ben sharp, some serious improvement of his craft is possible. The other piece is having Merrill Hoge as his mentor. One thing I try to keep in mind; as fans or media we are basically outsiders, and there are certain things, certain kinds of information that an organization will attempt to keep out of the view of outsiders with greater or lesser success. Think of what your employer may want to keep from customers or what your family make keep from the neighbors. There's a feeling I have that there is so much more going on here behind the scenes. That at root we are witnessing what happens when a special organization musters the resources and strategy to salvage a special talent. And that is all I'll say about it at this time. I was worried before about rust, depression and bitterness. Not so much now.
The running game. It wasn't until Dwyer came on in the final preseason game that I felt comfortable about this subject. Its not that Mendenhall hasn't met expectations, he's doing fine. It's just that we are one Ray Lewis hit from Hell. Hopefully, all jokes aside, Redman will be more than a preseason wonder. If so the ingredients for a fully successful year will be in place. With Dixon at quarterback they may have to establish the pass in order to get the run fully in gear. With the new O line coach and the crew that will be manning the line this year I believe that the running game will be all right early, but could be devastating around October/November. That should be enough time for them to get their rhythm and chemistry down. This could be a great run line and adequate at pass protection. They'll just need time. Hopefully, not too much.
Timmons. Barring injury this definitely looks to be LT's breakout year. If so, and see if you can wrap your minds around this, he could be at the very least the best linebacker on the field. Better than Harrison, better than Woodley. And he could be the best player on the defense period. If so, then this is all you have to know about 2010 Steelers Defense. How do you account for Timmons and Troy? Answer: you can't.
The first four games. In my mind the most important of these games is the opener against Atlanta. I think we've won our last eight home openers. And I'm having a hard time remembering if we ever had a really good year after stinking it up in the beginning. Openers are important because the team is often pointing towards this game literally for months. Obviously, its big for the community too. Don't let the odds fool you, it's a winnable game. It's unclear what to expect from the Falcons. They are usually a yo-yo team like Carolina or the Bengals. Very good one year and then turn around and suck the next. This is supposed to be an up year for them. Some are predicting that they can take out the Saints for their division crown. Even so, this is a game that they should struggle with. Opening Day in Pittsburgh should be a bit much for them. But no one should be shocked if they prevail, regardless of the play at quarterback.
I would think we'd lose against the Titans in Tennessee for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that we've always struggled in Tennessee. You would think that Tampa would be a win, but I keep getting these Chicago flashbacks; a game you oughta win, but a few mistakes and being just a little flat after two emotional games and perhaps looking ahead a bit. It might be one of those games that have fans cursing their significant others and torturing their pets into the wee hours. But lets be optimistic and say that it was a close win that make fans wonder how they will possibly compete against the Ravens.
And then there is Baltimore. One thing to remember here, even though it is a home game for us, the Ravens need a win a lot more than we do; regardless of record. Imagine playing the Pats without Brady at quarterback...and losing. That's what Baltimore faces when they come to Pittsburgh. For the Steelers, on the other hand, its all opportunity; especially if they come into the game 2-1 or better. Harbaugh ( and Marvin Lewis) knows that the road to the Super Bowl must run through Pittsburgh and they can't beat the third string qb, then well...
Tomlin says that the mood on the Southside is "edgy" this week. I can certainly see why. What the hell's going to happen next?