The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers at the Finish Line

It’s tempting, given the history of success, to ignore the ending of the regular season. Many in Steeler Nation take playoff participation for granted and as such see the post season as simply a normal extension of the football year. This is understandable given past generation of Steelers football. Pittsburgh has qualified for the playoffs with remarkable consistency during the Cowher/Tomlin eras. With all that said, a review of the challenges and achievements of the regular season deserve receiving their due. The structure and participants of the 2011 playoffs has only been known for a few hours. Before the excitement of January football commences, what is our evaluation of the 2011 regular season.

It’s probably fair to say that there is some disappointment in not having a division title and a low seeding in the playoffs. But I’m also certain that if, in August, most reading this had been offered a twelve win season and a spot in the playoffs they would have taken it with few, if any complaints. In previewing the season I wrote that this would probably be a difficult season for fans because, given the circumstances, our expectations would be excessively high. Judging from my own feelings and that of those I know it seems as if we have to constantly remind ourselves that things are actually going pretty well so far. It’s as if we have been limping to the finish line since the debacle in Baltimore in September. It doesn’t matter that the team is tied for the second best record in the conference, or that they beat the Patriots decisively, or that they recorded two shutouts, something of a rarity in today’s NFL. The 2011 regular season seemingly has been defined by in the Nation’s collective psyche by two bad losses (the two Ravens games) and two bad wins (the Colts and the Chiefs).

Although many of us give a lot of lip service to it, I think it’s really hard to wrap our minds around how truly difficult it is to sustain a consistently high level of performance year in and year out. For example, half of the teams in last year’s playoffs (Philly, the Jets, Chicago, Indianapolis, Seattle and Kansas City) didn’t make the cut this year. The reason why that is important in how we discern the progress of the team is that we tend to underestimate the severity of the challenges that this team faces on a weekly basis. In the comment tread from my last piece someone compared the Steelers to the Yankees in terms of how the team is perceived. I think the comparison is appropriate. The Nation often doesn’t notice because the media seems to want to talk about everybody but Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t mean that they are unaware of the team’s actual status.

My awareness of this was elevated in the wake of the first loss to the Ravens. Folks seemed to come out of the woodwork to make the point that the Steelers had gotten their behinds kicked. It took me a while to realize that this was a compliment. As I learned to point out to people on the occasions of the team’s other losses this season, in a normal year there may only be three or four opportunities to give Steelers fans grief. The majority of the people who were taunting me have now moved on to college basketball, hockey, the NBA, whatever.

One common thread concerning the games lost this year is that they came at the hands of playoff caliber teams who had a greater incentive to win. The Texans and 49ers are two franchises that are trying to establish and reestablish themselves respectively as top tier programs. And we know what demons the Ravens are wrestling with. I understand the standard being the standard, but realistically you just can’t circle all of your games in red. I was at Three Rivers Stadium for a game against the Vikings in ’72 when a young Steelers team established that they were now going to play with the big boys. The Vikings were not that amped up. They couldn’t be. Like those Vikings nearly 40 years ago, the Steelers are a team that others constantly measure themselves against. If they can beat Pittsburgh then maybe they have a chance to actually be great. That mindset was betrayed with the Gatorade baths the Ravens engaged in upon their two wins. I only remember three Gatorade baths in the history of the franchise; Bill Cowher in the 05 AFCCG, Super Bowl 40, and Mike Tomlin in the 08 AFCCG. It has to be something really big for the Black and Gold to be splashing sports drinks around. Yesterday while watching the game a guy, frustrated that Cleveland wasn’t being blown out, kept say "It’s just the Browns". "That," I responded, "was the problem. This is their super bowl and we’re saying they’re just the Browns." The good news is that in the playoffs the incentives are equal.

Coaching

With a second consecutive 12 win season and the fourth minimum 10 win year out of 5, Mike Tomlin continues to keep this team performing at a stunningly high level year in and year out. This in spite of having a pretty big target on their backs as defending conference champs, a big bite from the injury bug and another strong dose of controversy. But the most impressive coaching performance this year was turned in by rookie Defensive Backs coach Carnell Lake. Tomlin cut his teeth in this league as a secondary coach for a championship squad at Tampa Bay, and Dick LeBeau is a HOF defensive back, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that the defensive backfield would show improvement. But considering where we came to being the number one pass defense in the league (an even more impressive achievement in light of injuries and losses involving the front seven), and given the fact that though there were some additions, specifically Allen and Brown, the improvement came largely with personnel that were present last year. What could have been considered a feel good hire of a popular former player now looks to be a significant strengthening of an already impressive defensive staff.

Another coach worthy of lifting up is Special Teams coach Al Everest. As recently as 09 the offense and defense were consistently burdened with having to overcome special teams blunders. The trepidation that was usually associated with that phase of the game has completely dissipated. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler also deserves an honorable mention for putting a competent unit on the field week after week in spite of unrelenting injuries and limited talent.

Offensive Line

Wouldn’t it be fun to see what it would be like if you basically started the same five guys for an entire season? No matter what you think of the O line, it would be difficult to fairly evaluate this group given the continual challenge to group cohesion in the form of injuries. I suspect that in the future that Pouncey, a healthy Willie Colon and a more seasoned Gilbert will be the foundation for a strong unit. This year I would salute right guard Ramon Foster for his steady play and Trai Essex functioning in the crucial role as universal sub.

Running Backs

I part company with those who are dissatisfied with the running game. You’ll notice that as the weather has gotten dicey late in the year the running game steps up a bit. Mendenhall has ran hard all year, Redman, despite his bout of the fumbles yesterday, has been more thoroughly integrated into the offense and has a tremendous opportunity ahead of him in the upcoming playoffs. Mewelde Moore has proven that he is not nearly as washed up as many liked to have believed and is still a clutch performer. His role may be crucial in the near term. With surprise contributions coming even from practice squad player John Clay, the only disappointment has been that deadbeat Baron Batch. The problem looking forward is that there will be six pretty good performers to choose from next year. Who do you keep?

Quarterback

And speaking of guys named Batch; once again the Elder Police have emerged, insisting that any player over the age of 30 be banished to the Home, regardless of the status of their skills. Old Man Charlie had a remarkable performance against the Rams considering the fact that he was using a walker and he couldn’t see or hear. Seriously, I don’t get enthusiasm to push Batch out the door. I’m good with all the quarterbacks. I think it’s the best group in the league. But if Dixon stays with the Steelers he’ll rot on the vine. Unless someone shoots Ben (multiple times) he’s not going to get the reps he needs to develop. The narrative that Charlie is too fragile has been countered by the fact that it has been Leftwich and Dixon that have been struggling with injuries. His arm is supposedly too weak, but if Ben could throw the quality of deep ball to Wallace that Charlie has this year and last the Steelers might only have two losses. He knows the offense as well or better than anyone, makes good decisions, is good in the locker room. And being a quarterback over 35 is not the same as being, say, a running back over 35. Leave Charlie alone.

Tight Ends

Anybody miss not having a fullback? I guess Arians won that argument. Heath had a great year, but Weslye Saunders has really got my attention. An improvement from last year and looks like the position will be solid for the foreseeable future.

Receivers

I watched Antonio Brown have an outstanding camp. But a lot of people have had All Pro caliber pre seasons. Brown has fulfilled the promise and then some. Generally, the same could be said for the receiving corps as a whole. The performances of Brown and Mike Wallace has been validated by their selection to the Pro Bowl. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Sanders Is a bust. He’ll be heard from eventually. Isn’t it great to feel that the offense now has the potential to score from anywhere at anytime? Bad news? Is it really the end for Hines? I guess the Elder Police are happy about that one.

Defensive Line

The challenge put forth a few years ago was that the D line had to get younger and deeper. Guess what? The line has caught some grief concerning its performance. Warren Sapp has had a lot of help in criticizing the Steelers defense. Never mind that once again they are the number one defense in the league. I think the perceptual problem is that given the bias toward offense the definition of defensive dominance has shifted. With the likelihood that Smith and Hoke may be gone, it is comforting that Hayward and McLendon are emerging at the right time.

Linebackers

Wouldn’t it be great if we have a healthy Woodley and a healthy Harrison on the field at the same time? Wouldn’t it be great if Harrison wasn’t subject to some silly pro wrestling style narrative that he’s some sort of vicious out of control beast? The depressing thing is that some people actually think this is about safety. It would be hard to imagine the NFL caring less.

Defensive Backs

Ike is having a career year. It’s a shame he didn’t finish higher in Pro Bowl consideration. Folks are still waiting (hoping?) for Willie Gay to blow up. Hold your breath. Reports that Keenan Lewis was a bust were premature. Allen and Brown show great promise. And you can’t say that they are just the beneficiaries of a great pass rush. Pretty good turnaround don’t you think?

Special Teams

The only liability here is the reliability of Suisham’s field goal kicking. But he does contribute positively with his kick offs which have aided in keeping opposing teams from getting advantageous field position. Kapinos punt placement has been a pleasant surprise and raises some interesting questions about that position next year. Generally the play of this unit has been consistently outstanding.

The Playoffs

Generally speaking home field advantage is somewhat overblown. It didn’t help the Steelers in 04 or 07. It didn’t help the Pats or Bears last year. The one possible exception might be Denver because of the unique circumstance of Ryan Clark. In the final analysis the team’s fate will be determined by injuries and turnovers. I think if we can stop the bleeding (and so far we haven’t) and hold on to the ball, maybe even get a few ourselves than our chances are real good. I think the Steelers is the most complete team in all three phases. We can hope.

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