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Latest Steelers Loss Leaves Fans Wondering

Some more comprehensive thoughts about the Steelers 24-27 loss on Sunday at home to the Oakland Raiders. As always, they're mostly rambling in nature, a combination of both positive and negative thoughts, and contextualized within a broader framework of the realities of life in the National Football League since the historic 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement.  

* One of the beautiful things about the National Football League is just how much of a team game it really is. You can't really win in this league with just one, or even two or three outstanding players if the rest of the roster is average to below average. You need depth to win, even in years when the injury bug doesn't strike. And when players do go down, which happens most every year, you need to have adequate backups ready to fill in and contribute. Where am I going with this? Well, just a few prefacing thoughts about how I'm perfectly aware that the Steelers struggles can't be attributed solely to the absence of Troy Polamalu on defense. But it's pretty telling just how differently this defense has performed with and without #43 in the lineup. Here are some of the more telling figures:

Record: With Polamalu, 4-1....Without Polamalu, 2-5

Points per Game Allowed: With Polamalu13.8....Without Polamalu, 23.1 

TD passes allowed: With Polamalu, 2.... Without Polamalu, 13 

Interceptions: With Polamalu, 7....Without Polamalu,1

Takeaways: With Polamalu, 11...Without Polamalu, 5 

Now, going back to my original statement about football and the NFL in particular are interesting -  almost every play requires the small and often unnoticeable contributions of multiple guys for things to work out as designed.  That can be said of both offensive and defensive plays. A successful play requires more than just the guys throwing and catching the balls; and on defense, the defender who defends the pass or makes the tackle.  It's impossible for us to see everything unfold from the angles provided on television broadcasts. But as fans and 'students' of the game, we understand this reality without necessarily understanding why or how all the disparate parts on an NFL field work together to make up what happens each play, series, game, and season. A couple of obvious examples are how the Steelers rush defense is predicated on Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton clogging the gaps in the interior so that teammates behind them can clean up and make a play. Their unheralded work ensures that offensive linemen can't get anywhere close to the next level to get a hat on our LBs and DBs to open up even bigger plays in the running game. On the other side of the ball, plays like those bubble screens to Santonio Holmes require Heath Miller and/or Hines Ward to get a necessary block on a cornerback so that Holmes has a bit of operating room to work with initially after the catch. Without the blocks, the plays are gobbled up for zero or negative yardage. With the right blocks Holmes looks like a baller after the catch. 

Said differently, unlike baseball games which are essentially a multitude of 1-on-1 confrontations for the most part (pitcher vs. batter), or basketball games, which often times (at least in the NBA) are decided by which team has the best individual player with the most unguardable 1-on-1 moves, NFL contests are generally speaking more decidedly determined by subtle actions/contributions from players not directly involved in the outcome of specific plays.

What's my point? Well, I guess I'm trying to say that it's not exactly clear how Polamalu may or may not make his teammates in the secondary better. I wish it was more easily quantifiable or even identifiable. There are some nascent statistical outfits that are trying to do things like this..i.e. measure the value of particular players in ways beyond just the traditional statistical metrics like tackles, INTs, yards, etc. But for the most part, we're still all largely uneducated - or at least ill-equipped with the necessary viewing angles - to better understand how all 11 guys on each side of the ball work together most plays. 

Anyway, I'm admitting that I can't 'prove' it in any legitimately cogent way, but I really have to believe that Polamalu makes guys like Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior and Deshea Townsend much better than they otherwise are.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, that doesn't really cut it in today's NFL. This is a discussion for another day, but I suppose the only solution really is to retool the roster some this spring and summer so that the team is not so heavily dependent on #43's presence.

* I said it last week and I'll say it once more...even though it pains me to do so. The Steelers will be better off in 2010 and beyond because of the growing pains that their youngsters are going through this year. William Gay, Ryan Mundy, Joe Burnett, Ziggy Hood, Stefan Logan - all these guys will be better because of all the experience they're accumulating this year. The Steelers don't overspend in free agency - sometimes that may be to their disadvantage, which I wrote all summer I thought was the case with Bryant McFadden (mostly because he wasn't expensive, or over the hill age-wise). What the Steelers do instead is build through the draft, develop their young talent, and position themselves nicely to make repeated runs at Super Bowls every so often when their draft classes that are particularly strong get the requisite seasoning and experience. 

wrote this earlier in the year before it was apparent just how much this year's team would struggle: 

I just wanted to throw this discussion starter out there to see what some of you guys thought - are the Steelers making more little mistakes early on in the 2009 season because they are working in a high volume of rookies compared to in years past? It's fairly well documented that rookies don't often see the field much during their first season in Pittsburgh. There have been exceptions, for sure, but for the most part, players are forced to learn the ropes for a year or two behind more seasoned, veteran players before getting their first real crack at making an impact for the Black 'n Gold.

Again, I'm not really pointing to specific plays or instances where the 2009 Steelers rookie class has cost the team. I'm just making a general point that the team is working in far more young bodies than we are accustomed to. This will pay dividends for the organization down the road, and perhaps even for this team later on in the 2009 season. There will be more growing pains though I'd guess before things really all start to come together for this particular squad. That's part of the process and the reality of life in the National Football League. As fans, we must be both excited about all the fresh talent in the pipeline while also remaining realistic about the growing curve that these young players must face and overcome before consistently contributing to a ballclub with championship aspirations.

Well, a couple months and four more losses later, we're seeing the Steelers rookies as well as the second year players (but first year starters) make easily identifiable and costly mistakes that are costing this team ball games. I'll stick with my guns though - it's going to make this team better down the road. Questioning the talent evaluation abilities of Kevin Colbert and his army of scouts is simply ridiculous given their track record. We, as fans, must just wait for much of this young talent to 'grow up' a bit in this insanely competitive and pressure-packed league.

* Case in point - Joe Burnett's total whiff of a game-clinching interception on the Raiders final drive. Not even going to bag on Burnett for the gaffe. The kid's a proven ball-hawk and sure-handed defensive back from his college days. And hell, junior varsity high school players across our great country make that catch every Friday night. Burnett muffed it under the pressure of sealing a W for his reeling team. 


* Finally a big play contribution from KR/PR Stefan Logan. Kudos to him for hanging in there and continuing to run hard after what I imagine has been somewhat of a frustrating season for him personally. Again, not like he's been bad by any stretch of the imagination. I just figure he probably had higher expectations for himself coming out of training camp and the preseason. His 83 yard return on the game's opening kickoff put the Steelers in prime position to jump out to an early 7-0 lead. Perhaps foreshadowing what was to come for the Steelers in the redzone, Pittsburgh had to settle for 3 points after going pass, run, pass and picking up just 4 yards. 

* Ike Taylor got the flack for allowing several big plays on Sunday, and once again, the criticism is essentially deserved. But let me quickly talk about the heave Gradkowski threw to Lois Murphy on the game-winning drive - the lobbed, lame duck throw that Murphy rose up to and snagged away from Taylor that gave the Raiders reason to believe they could actually pull it out. Well, re-watch that play and noticed what Deshea Townsend contributed on that play. Um, nothing. We don't expect Deshea to be a head hunter in the running game or to lay the wood frequently in the dime and nickel packages he plays in. But we do expect the savvy veteran to show a good sense...a veteran sense...of how to locate a desperation heave like that with multiple teammates surrounding him. Not sure what's going on with one of the more important Steelers defenders this decade but whatever it is, it's not good. In fact, it may be hurting the team more than anybody's really talking about. Just think how important he was last year in important moments when teams were trying to come from behind. Disappointing stuff.

* On a similar note...on the ensuing Raiders kickoff return, who was it returning the kick for Oakland but the one and only Gary Russell, last year's return man in Pittsburgh? Russell actually would return that kickoff 34 yards to put Oakland in business on their first offensive series of the game. The Raiders would convert a 4th and 1 from the Steelers 49 yard line before having to settle for a field goal of their own, a successful 48 yard boot from the mercurial Sebastian Janikowski

Couple things about that opening sequence of drives. 1) I thought the Steelers offensive balance was just fine for the most part. How could you not really? Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 24 times while the trio of Rashard MendenhallWillie Parker and Mewelde Moore had 24 combined carries. Still, on that first offensive series following the long Logan kickoff return, I would have liked to see the offense come out and prove they were ready to 'raise hell' on their remaining opponents by going to the running game early and often. Now, obviously a negative run on 2nd and 5 put the Steelers in a 'passing situation', but given how bad Oakland's rush defense is (31st in Y/G), and how legitimately decent they are against the pass (215.8 Y/G), I thought the Steelers could have stood to lean on the running game even more than they did all game. I'm usually one who's in favor of taking to the air if all relevant variables are equal, but I would say that this game was one where the team could have sacrificed some of the success they were having through the air to A) shorten the game knowing the team would be playing a few short days from Sunday...B) minimize the risk of Ben Roethlisberger taking unnecessary hits in the passing game...and C) get a win that resembled 'Steelers football'..i.e. a win that was done via smash mouth, not-always-pretty football. 

Anyway, like I said, the balance was by no means awful today. It was just fine. On to Oakland's first sequence though. Loved the play call on 3rd and 10 when they opted to run with Justin Fargas rather than playing in to the Steelers hands and trying to throw the ball in the face of blitzing pressure. The result was a 9 yard gain that set up 4th and 1 from Pittsburgh's 49. Tom Cable aggressively went for it, even though a failed conversion risked putting his team down an early 6 or even worse yet, 10 points, on the road. It was a little discussed decision, but it actually somewhat set the tone for the rest of the game. Oakland was here to play.

* One other thought about that 4th down call from Oakland on their opening series, as well as how Pittsburgh defended it. Is it just me or have the Steelers too often over committed to stuffing the run in situations like that this year only to get beat on quick passes, screens, or flare outs on the perimeter that have left a linebacker on a speedier running back or bigger tight end? I say just let the defensive line + the outside linebackers + one of the safetys do their best to plug up the run and make sure that the ILBs + the CBs + the other safety are all 100% prepared for something happening on the perimeter. On the Raiders successful 4th down conversion, Lawrence Timmons and Tyrone Carter were a step behind the play - a 10 yard pitch and catch to Justin Fargas. 

* Speaking of the rush defense, the Steelers still sport the league's best rush defense through 12 games, and it's next to impossible that either Green Bay (currently 4th) or Baltimore (6th) surpasses them after MNF tomorrow. Pittsburgh has allowed just 77.8 yards per game, but have given up 100 yard games for consecutive weeks now, and have allowed their opponent to surpass the century mark four times through 12 games. By comparison, last year's defense only allowed 100+ rushing yards in a game four times all season. That's not to say the rush defense has been horrid this year, or for that matter even significantly worse, but there nevertheless has been a dropoff.  


* I try not to 'speak' in a hyperbolic nature very often, but I will say that I think Ryan Mundy will never be worthy of a starting spot in a Pittsburgh Steelers secondary.  Mundy was awful down the stretch on Sunday. His unnecessary roughness hit on the Raiders' game-winning drive was I suppose somewhat questionable, but it also wasn't very smart any way you cut it. At worst, you have to make sure you're not delivering a helmet-to-helmet hit there. I've had plenty of issues with the way Ryan Clark has played this year, but to his credit, one thing he never does is lead with his helmet on those big hits he tries (sometimes too often) to deliver on would be receivers over the middle. He instead leads with his shoulder which (thankfully) rarely, if ever, gets called in this league. Helmet-to-helmet hits do get called though, particularly in today's game. Not smart. Then, to get beat cheating up on Zack Miller, the Raiders tight end on the game-winning touchdown is equally inexcusable. I didn't like the decision to send a corner blitz there at all, but it was called, and Munday and the other safety in the game (Clark, I believe) were asked to handle pass-coverage responsibilities alongside a few linebackers in place of the blitzing CBs. Well, Mundy didn't play as if he had concrete coverage responsibilities and allowed Lois Murphy to break free of him for the touchdown reception.

* I have to hand it to Bruce Gradkowski for his performance on Sunday, but in particular for that game-winning TD throw to Murphy. That was a perfectly thrown ball with his feet not set as Brett Keisel was bearing down in his face and throwing window. As I was watching that final play, I said 'ballgame' before the ball was thrown but after it was apparent the blitzing Steelers were not going to get to Gradkowski as was designed. 

* I've seen some people criticizing the Steelers offensive line for their performance on Sunday, but I don't at all agree with that assessment. Though the majority of Rashard Mendenhall's 103 yards came on a 60 yard run in the 1st quarter, the Steelers offensive line still did some nice things in both the running and passing game. Big Ben was sacked just once and had time to throw much of the afternoon. They weren't dominant, but we never really though they would be, even against some of the weaker defensive lines in the league. They continued though to hold their own and not be responsible for the team's troubles, which of course could be said of them last year. 

* I'll be doing my usual weekly league-wide musings soon enough, but I will say this for now - root like hell for Green Bay tomorrow night when they host the visiting Baltimore Ravens. With Denver and Jacksonville winning on Sunday, the Steelers could benefit from a Ravens loss. There are plenty of Steelers fans who have written off this year, and I suppose I can't blame them. It's been awfully frustrating and disappointing to see professionals perform like this. I myself am not making any predictions about this team anymore because they have proven too often that they can play great yet find new and amazing ways to lose games. But I will say this - one of the immensely fun and captivating aspects of being an NFL fan is dissecting each and every way that our favorite team can sneak in to the playoffs provided X, Y, Z happens.  

Don't get me wrong, the teams that are relegated to league-wide 'scoreboard watching' down the stretch usually...scratch that, almost always....get bounced in the 1st round of the playoffs. That's not the point though. You can't win it ever year. At best, you just hope that there's any reason at all to tune in to watch your favorite team play come the final month of the season other than simply because that's what you do for 16 weeks each fall and winter. 

The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers - despite their myriad flaws, frustrating tendencies, and seemingly certain fate as a non-contender for the Lombardi Trophy - still are more than mathematically still in it with four games to go. You won't hear any such sentiments or reflections from me if the Steelers were to lose at Cleveland on Thursday. And that's not just because they'd probably be very, very close to mathematically out of it were they to lose.  It's also because the defending champs just best not lose to the lowly Browns following four straight losses (at least 3 or which they definitely should have won).

I say that even though the game's on the road and even though I'm as big a proponent as anybody for tempering annual expectations in this league due to how the league's been systematically structured in the 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement and the subsequent revisions to it since then - that is to say that it's nothing novel or historic to see a defending champion like the Steelers - with seemingly top 10 talent on both sides of the ball - struggle or look little like the team that had won it all the previous year. It's frustrating and it's easy to point the finger, but unless you have a the greatest quarterback in the history of this league, Peyton Manning, you're going to endure some serious peaks and valleys over the years as a result of the way this league has been structured to promote ridiculously competitive games and playoff races every year. Without a robotically efficient and perfectly groomed QB like Manning guiding your team over the years, your team's just not going to be able to sustain the effects of injuries, bad luck, poor defense some weeks/years, bad coaching, etc, etc, etc to win consistently. We're seeing that with New England in recent years; we're seeing it with Pittsburgh this year and in 2006; we've seen it with New Orleans in 2007 and 2008 following their run to the NFC Title Game in Brees' first year. Some years things come together perfectly - which is what we may be seeing in both New Orleans and Indianapolis. Other years very good rosters somehow find little ways to miss out on opportunities to build something special as a group. The Steelers most certainly seem to be in one of those seriously annoying down years where that's the case.

BUT, as Lloyd Christmas once said, 'so you're saying there's a chance?' 

Yes, for at least another week, yes there is. And for that I'm still grateful and excited, no matter how let down and disappointed I continue to feel come the end of too many weekends this fall.