Let's take a look at how the Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded following poor showings in 2007. I am interested in more than simply whether we won or lost. In particular, I'm curious to see how our offensive line fared in the weeks following some of their worst performances of last tear.
Let's begin in Week 4 against Arizona. The Steelers came in to that road contest, of course, with a 3-0 record. At 1-2, Ken Whisenhunt had his Cards fired up. A home victory would not only put AZ back in the thick of things in the jumbled NFC, it would also be personally nice for Whisenhunt, who despite what he said at the time, had to have been eager to remind to the Rooney family that they had a let a bright young coach walk away just one short year after helping the franchise win its fith world championship.
As I digress...
The Steelers lost 21-14 that day. The offensive line surrendered 4 sacks and the offense musterred just 77 yards rushing.
The following week against the Seahawks, the Steelers rebounded in a big way, against an admittedly punchless opponent. The offensive line did still struggle a bit, giving up 3 sacks on just 22 pass attempts. But they did pave the way for Willie Parker on the ground. Parker ran for 163 yards that day.
Personnel Adjustments: None
Adjustment Grade: B
The Seahawks game had us thinking things were ok. We were after all 4-1 heading into the BYE, no? Well, against Denver, our defense didn't show up. The offense did their part for the most part, scoring 4 TDs. But we still lost 28-31, and there were mistakes made on both sides of the football. The offensive line was just ok, despite the solid output scoring wise. They gave up 4 sacks while our RBs tallied 119 yards on the evening.
Suddenly, we were just 4-2, having lost two of three. Nothing like a game against the Bengals to trick yourself into thinking things are A-okay. For that day, though, they were. We kept Big Ben upright for most all the game, allowing him to be sacked just once. Willie Parker had 126 of our team's 160 yards on the ground, padding his lead atop the NFL rushing standings.
Personnel Adjustments: None
Adjustment Grade: A
It was not until we went on the road to New York that we would lose again in 2007. Three straight wins over Cincy, Baltimore and Cleveland all but locked the division for us, even if it was just mid November. Perhaps we didn't notice the 3 sacks that Baltimore had against in our MNF beatdown of them. Or the 4 yielded to the Browns in one of Big Ben's signature moments last year. But when we went to New York, we were quickly reminded of some of the internal flaws of the offense. On the day, we were sacked 7 times, and though we had 112 yards rushing, it came on 33 carries, which is closer to 3 yards a pop than 4.
The more astute members of our community had seen enough to know that this team had issues, particularly away from the comfy confines of Heinz Field. The next week, we woud escape with a 3-0 win over Miami in the Mud Bowl. I am not even going to consider this game, and instead move forward one week to our contest against Cincinnatti.
Again, a win over the Bengals gave us two straight, and one more reason to believe that maybe we were going to find a way to give the Patriots a run for their money the following week. The 24-10 W over the Bungles was not as impressive as the score might indicate. We turned the ball over 4 times and had a hard time running the football (101 yards). This wasn't an execution, offensive line, or play calling problem though. Willie Parker had fumbli-i-tis that day and we had a hard time getting into a rhythm because of it. Nevertheless, the line did keep Ben off his back, giving up 0 sacks.
Personnel Adjustments: Max Starks gets the first two starts of his 2008 season against Miami and Cincinnati in place of the ailing Marvel Smith. Coincidence that we improve? Who knows. On the one hand, Marvel Smith is a pro's pro and a pretty-to-very good, if not great, Tackle. Max Starks was/is still developing. So it's disingenous to say Starks needed to be in there the whole time. But, if Smith was hurting weeks before finally being shelved, that's not a good thing. We had someone ready to play who competed admirably when given the shot.
Adjustment Grade: B
At 9-3, the football loving public crowned us most likely to end New England's perfect season when we clashed in Week 14. Uh, not quite. But that wasn't on our offense. They did their part, particularly in the first half. The only problems were in the redzone. FGs weren't going to cut it that day, and we had no stop for Brady and Moss, losing 34-13. We did have 181 yards rushing and were sacked just 3 times despite having to play all the second half from behind.
The following week against Jacksonville, the skies became even darker. We were physically outmached for most of the day, and though Big Ben did his best to get us back in the game late, it again perhaps tricked us into believing that we were that close. This game, perhaps more so than any other, was on Bruce Arians. On the day, we were sacked 5 times. For some reason, we decided to take to the air most of the day despite snowy conditions, poor pass protection, and even worse, the success we were having running the ball. On 18 carries, we amassed 115 yards, good for nearly 6.5 yards per attempt. Instead, we threw the ball 32 times, completing just 15 passes. Now, granted, we were down most all of the third and fourth quarters, but even when the Jags went up 22-7, we were still down just two scores and had plenty of time to be satisfied with 6.5 yards per carry, not to mention all the other benefits in the passing game persistent running might bring. This mind you, came immediately in the wake of our defeat against NE, when we played directly into their hands by throwing the ball too often. With the clock not moving nearly fast enough, the Patriots offense found themselves on the field far too often and the rest was history. Against Jags, different dynamics, but still a similar error in tactics.
Personnel Adjustments: Marvel Smith returned against New England and Jacksonville, before getting injured again. Max Starks returned to the sidelines where he belonged was underutilized.
Adjustment Grade: D
There ya have it guys and gals. That's a lot to digest, but let's try to make some conclusions. For the most part, the Steelers' line failed to bounce back following a poor showing in 2007. But, that's not to say that the team didn't bounce back collectively, or that Mike Tomlin didn't do a great job in his first year getting his team to play tough after a loss, especially in divisional games. In the line's defense, they never had back-to-back games like the NYJ game. 3-4 sacks though seemed to be the norm, and that's just not going to cut. Only once did they really shore things up and play much cleaner, more dominant football in the trenches. Why? Well, it's dangerous to make monolithic conclusions about something as dynamic as the play of an offensive line each week against different opponents, but it's not unreasonable at all...in fact, it's pretty damn logical...to claim that the lack of personnel changes had everything to do with why we generally struggled on a consistent basis along the line.
There was really just one instance where we shook things up and that was inserting Max Starks (by necessity) against Miami and Cincinnatti. Even though the Mud Bowl's statistics are not worth revisiting because of the condition of the playing surface, it's well worth noting that pass-rush specialist Jason Taylor was stymied by Starks. And no, the torn up turf did not make it impossible to rush the quarterback. The teams combined for 9 sacks that day.
What's this mean? Who knows, but I think it's worth revisiting how we fared after bad games last year. And I need not remind you that last week was as bad as it gets. The good news, I think, is that A) we were humiliated in such a huge way that any grown man (or woman, for that matter) with any self-respect will battle back and B) we're playing our rivals.
My guess is if you ask our players who they hate the most in the league, they'd say the Ravens. The Brownies just don't come out and play the same physical brand of football that Baltimore does against us (though to their credit, they did two weeks ago). It's the Ravens who will make you leep your head on a swivel and physically abuse you if you're not ready to fight.
We may just need that -extra- bit of motivation, because from the looks of it, we don't have a great track record with this coaching staff (Arians, Z) or depth chart at improving significantly the following week after being exposed by an opposing defense.