SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Tight end Vernon Davis #85 of the San Francisco 49ers is unable to make a catch against cornerback Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third quarter at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
In Part I, we go over the general unknowns of a transformed offense along with the lack of turnovers and sacks from a defense that, just two years ago, thrived on them.
Not to continue playing the part of the wet blanket, but there are a few more ways the Steelers could see something of a drop from 2011 to 2012.
Injuries to Ben Roethlisberger
Granted, this one is a bit too much on the nose - if Green Bay or New England or the Giants lost their quarterback, their team just wouldn't be the same, either. Likely back-up Byron Leftwich has done alright as a spot-starter in his time in Pittsburgh, but with a pretty strong AFC North, could the Steelers keep pace with him under center? He hasn't played since Gary Russell was on the roster. That's a lot of downs to watch in the honorary Duce Staley Sweatpants.
More than anything, it's about the lack of Roethlisberger on the field. He's the field general. It's hard to adjust to a new signal caller, invariably that new quarterback reads the field pre-snap differently. Try as they would to get on the same page before the game, when the rubber meets the road, it only takes one play where the team isn't in the same mindset as the quarterback for things to go tragically wrong. And with an AFC looking as competitive as it is, one play could cost a team one game, which could cost a team a playoff spot or worse.
History Not Repeating Itself
I've raved about the Peter Principle, usually in reference to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but it can apply to football players as well. The famous creed of the Steelers is "Next Man Up." If the Steelers reload rather than rebuild, it suggests they constantly bring in starting-caliber players to fill back-up roles. It's a great vision for any organization.
At some point, that will run out. Some could point to Jason Worilds last season. No one asked him to be LaMarr Woodley or James Harrison, but that's exactly the point. If either of those two, or any other key player, is that good, eventually, Peter's Principle says at some point the person filling in will be over-promoted.
Seems like there's a lot of potential to see that this year. How will Steve McLendon adopt to the starting position for what appears to be at least the first six games (If/when NT Casey Hampton is put on the PUP list to start the year)? Willie Colon is a talented offensive lineman, will he be able to transition to a new position on the opposite side of where he's played throughout his career? Will Larry Foote be able to handle what appears to be a full slate of snaps for the first time since 2009 when he was in Detroit?
Or, are any of those guys simply asked to do more than they're capable of doing? It's a fair question.
It's Not Improving, It's Leapfrogging
Looking back on it, the Steelers were a very good football team in 2011. They obviously were in 2010 as well. If you look at it objectively, there are a few reasons you can see why 2010 had more success than 2011, but how big were those differences, really? If an injured quarterback (who still played, mind you) was the difference between having the ball down six on the last possession of the Super Bowl and not winning a playoff game, that margin between champion and also-ran is far slimmer than we're making it.
Enter in the Baltimore Ravens of 2010 and 2011. The difference in those two seasons, simply, as WR Torrey Smith caught a touchdown pass to beat the Steelers and eventually win the division (as well as a playoff game). In 2010, Anquan Boldin dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone, forcing the Ravens to settle for three points, and give the ball back to Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Obviously that's not the concrete reason, but the point is the Ravens didn't overtake the Steelers because they suddenly because that much better of a team. The talent levels of both teams was outstanding, but the Ravens leapfrogged the Steelers in 2011.
Every contending team in the NFL will have improved in some way from 2011 to 2012. That doesn't eliminate the logjam of talent that presently exists. The Steelers will have to leapfrog a few other teams, based solely on last year's results. That is done during games more so than it's done during the offseason.
FS Ryan Clark needs to recognize the window Flacco is aiming for on Smith, and he needs to get over to make the play. LB Lawrence Timmons needs to recognize the stretch run and not allow himself to get caught in the wash at the middle of the field, and pursue the ball carrier.
Those are just two examples, and they don't tell a whole season (both players did far more good things than bad) but speaking on the team top to bottom, they need to beat the best if they want to be the best.
That isn't easy to do. Doesn't mean they can't or won't, but it's worth talking about, even for the most optimistic of us.