The good news is that the Steelers got better, perhaps significantly, in the afterglow of the 2011 NFL Draft. The bad news is that every team in the AFC North did the same. All NFL fans are giddy after a draft. It's like Christmas in April. We all have a half dozen shiny new presents to ogle over; new talent, new blood and new hopes. Put simply, it's fun to think of our new toys and envision them helping us get to the promised land. The problem is, a rising tide lifts all boats. While the Steelers may have gotten better, so did everyone else. Mel Kiper gave his annual grades to every team. He issued a B+ or higher to nine of the NFL's 32 teams. Basically, half of the nine, all four of the AFC North teams, received those B+ or higher grades. So, much like a tree falling in a forest and no one hearing it, if everyone got better, did anyone get better? If you are playing poker and the house comes in and gives every player seven extra chips, what difference does it make?
While part of me sounds like the Grinch that stole Christmas, reminding you that Santa Claus also brought the entire neighborhood a sack of marbles, there is a major storm that the Steelers have weathered, giving their fans special reason for optimism. It's easy to get a high draft grade when you pick in the top six, like half the AFC North did. Conversely, picking #31 is the penultimate pick in the NFL. You love #32, basking in the glory of a Super Bowl Championship, but drawing the 31 pill is like drawing the Old Maid. If there is one thing I could change about the NFL, it would be the draft structure. I hate it. I could think of a handful of better, fairer, models. How about a snake draft and allow the worst teams to pick their spot on the ladder? How exciting would pre-draft draft be? At the risk of digressing further, allowing a team to pick in the top six in the first, second and third rounds is repulsive to me. I'm all for socialism in professional sports, loving the revenue sharing and salary cap components, but letting a team draft 31 spots higher than another team in every single round is unfair. When you draft in the top six (I know the Browns traded out of that spot, but look what they gained?), you actually get an absolute primo guy plus another first-round talent. There's always a handful of guys who fall out of the first-round who are just as good as the late first-rounders. Then you get rewarded again in the third round. Too much Robin Hood for my blood. I digress to this extent to say how impressed I am that Pittsburgh was able to stand toe-to-toe with the Browns and Bengals despite having one hand tied behind its back.
Looking at the particulars, if you are Baltimore, Cincinnati or Cleveland, you sit around the conference table the entire offseason asking one question: How do we beat Pittsburgh? The answer could be given by the janitor in the room emptying the trash: Attack their corners. Don't bother running, don't even try. A, you can't and B, you don't have to. To that end, all three of Pittsburgh's AFC North foes bolstered their passing attack to the tune of two key players in the first four rounds of the draft. The Bengals spent their first pick thinking about that Pittsburgh secondary and drafted all-world receiver, A.J. Green, and then a gifted quarterback (Andy Dalton), both within the top 36 picks of the draft, as insurance against a pouting Carson Palmer. Cleveland took a beast receiver (Greg Little) in the second round, who would have gone much higher had he not been suspended all of last year at North Carolina. The team has switched to West Coast, adding players, coaches and even the team president, with the single mission of shooting the poison arrow into the heel of Achilles. Colt McCoy is no longer a rookie and the new regime believes Brian Robiskie and Mo Massaquoi were not utilized properly. The Ravens were one piece short, a home run hitter, and they danced in the streets when Torrey Smith fell to the bottom of the second round. Baltimore then added receiver Tandon Doss in the fourth. You can't defeat Achilles by trying to overpower him. You shoot him in the heel where he is vulnerable.
The optimist will tell you that Colbert was being Colbert and handled the draft masterfully. How else can you get such a high grade when you've been dealt the Old Maid? And as far as all this worry about the cornerback position, consider that the Steelers came within one touchdown drive of winning the Super Bowl with their current defensive inventory. Yes, the secondary was vulnerable, but what about the pick six, the Mendenhall fumble, the Ben misfire to a wide-open Wallace - huge plays in the game. Would Pittsburgh have drafted 32nd had any one of those offensive blunders not happened? Really, how bad is the cornerback situation? And didn't Colbert get perhaps a steal in the third round with Curtis Brown? Doesn't the addition of a dynamic Cameron Heyward help the secondary? There is plenty of reason for optimism here. The wildcard, of course, is the re-signing of Ivan Taylor. The optimist will tell you that the NFL Labor situation has helped Pittsburgh's chances of doing just that. Without the ability to sign with another franchise, several teams shored up their secondaries in the draft, lessening the urgency to want or need Taylor. The glass is definitely half full.
And then there's the other shoulder, upon which that little devil is talking. The Steelers do not have Ike Taylor, and while they are the home team, all it takes is just one other team to throw money at him. Then what? A team is as strong as its weakest link. We go with McFadden, who the Cardinals shipped back to Pittsburgh for a ham sandwich after they realized he can't play the position, and Willie Gay, who didn't need to leave for everyone to realize he can't play the position. Then we have Colbert's third and fourth round picks. Are we going into the 2011 season with hopes and dreams pinned on that package? As good as Colbert has been historically in the first round, he is 38% in the second, third and fourth rounds combined, meaning that roughly only one player per year in those three rounds has meaningful impact for the team. Since 2005, only three players that Colbert has drafted in rounds 2-4 have had meaningful impact with the team.
The Steelers will win a bunch of games this fall, assuming they play football. They are talented enough to go 5-1 in the division and be in great position to win it or be a wild card. But unless they re-sign Ivan Taylor, and Curtis Brown has positive impact to at least some degree, their secondary will again be their downfall. It doesn't matter how few yards the legendary run defense gives up. Against quarterbacks named Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers, Coach Tomlin is 1-6 and should be 0-7. Against the rest of the NFL, he is 47-17. That is a stunning statistic. Come playoff time, there will be no more Browns and Bengals and other teams the Steelers can beat without cornerbacks. It is possible the Steelers could luck out miraculously with other teams knocking out those quarterbacks. It almost happened last year. The Jets, with Revis and Cromartie, played and beat the Colts and Patriots before those quarterbacks had a chance to feast on Pittsburgh's secondary. Brees got knocked off also on the NFC side. If Rodgers had lost to Atlanta or Philly on the road, the Steelers may have dodged all those bullets and won another title. But that's not something we can count on again.
What we need to count on is Ike Taylor and Curtis Brown. In my opinion, those are the two most important wildcards to the Steelers playoff success in 2011.