More thanks to Josh over at Cincy Jungle for posing some great questions on what the Bengals can expect from the Steelers this Sunday. If you remember back to a few years ago the rivarly between the Bengals and Steelers was as heated as any in the NFL. With a healthy Carson Palmer and and improved defense this match-up is ready to get serious again. -Michael B.-
1) Mike Tomlin was hired after Bill Cowher left after the 2006 season. Tomlin went to Super Bowl and through 34 games, has amassed a 23-11 regular season record. In this age of high coaching turnover in the NFL, how does it feel to have another head coach that figures to be around for a long time?
Of all the things Steelers fans are worried about with this 2009 team, the head coach is the least of our concerns. We absolutely love Mike Tomlin and what he's done for the organization since being hired after the 2006 season. After this past Sunday's loss to the Bears, Tomlin said that the team would go 'back to the lab'. Just like what happened last year when the Steelers got thumped by Tennessee just a few weeks before the start of the playoffs, Steelers fans are hoping this early season loss lights a fire under the team and gets them re-focused for the long grind ahead.
2) Rashard Mendenhall missed most of his rookie season due to injury. How has he looked so far this year and what role should we expect him to be in on Sunday?
Well, it's not clear how Rashard Mendenhall will be used going forward. Up until this point, he has played only one series to every two played by Willie Parker. Mendenhall had the first true highlights of his young career this past Sunday in Pittsburgh's 17-14 loss to Chicago. He only had three carries, but one went for 37 yards. More importantly, it was the first run where he really hit the hole hard and ran with some authority. He also had this wacky 13 yard reception, which was broken down comically frame-by-frame here on my site. I imagine that Mendenhall will get a few more looks this week rushing the football - particularly if the Steelers are able to maintain a lead throughout the game. If it's close late in the ballgame, you can expect to see Mewelde Moore, the team's 3rd down back that the coaching st seemingly trusts the most of the three down the stretch.
3) Since 2005, Willie Parker's average yards rushing per attempt have fallen from 4.7 (2005) to 2.8 in 2008. Granted, he dealt with an injury most of 2008. This year, Parker has rushed for 66 yards rushing for a 2.44 yard-per-rush average. Is there a general feeling that Parker is done? Or has playing the Titans and Bears, two decent defenses, put off that conversation for now?
Most Steelers fans would say they feel he's done. I'm not one of them necessarily. I do though think he's probably never going to get back to the success he had earlier in his career behind this offensive line. To their credit, the offensive line really seems to be improving dramatically in pass protection. Run blocking, not so much. We'll see what happens Sunday - the Bengals have always been one of Parker's favorite teams to feast on.
4) The Bengals defense has recorded nine quarterback sacks through the first two games; Antwan Odom alone has seven. What can you tell us about this year's Steelers offensive line?
Read above. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 6 times through two games, but really only 2 or 3 of those were on the offensive line. The majority were the result of Big Ben holding on to the ball waaaay too long. They've looked pretty darn good keeping him upright so far, but as I mentioned, there's still not been many consistent running lanes opened up by the offensive line. That said, in the 2nd half of last week's game, the offensive line opened up impressive holes for all three Steelers running backs (Parker, Moore, Mendenhall). The Steelers finished the game averaging almost 4.8 yards per carry - a number they didn't even come close to approaching but on a few occasions last season.
5) Through two games, Pittsburgh has amassed two team sacks, which is far below their average of 3.2 sacks-per-game in 2008. Does this have anything to do with the teams you've played, or is there a fundamental defensive change in Dick LeBeau's schemes?
No, no. Dick LeBeau's not going to be changing his philosophy 50 years in to his NFL career. I think it's mostly a product of going up against two quarterbacks (K. Collins, J. Cutler) that get rid of the ball extremely fast - both were amongst the fewest sacked quarterbacks in the league last year. The Titans and Bears offensive lines aren't too shabby either - particularly at the tackle spots where Harrison and Woodley are lined up opposite. If neither are able to get to Palmer on Sunday, Steelers fans might become a bit concerned, but for now, we're not there yet.
6) How has the Steelers defense compensated with losing Troy Polamalu so early in the season and when is he likely to return to the team?
Polamalu could come back as early as two or three more weeks, but I think it's more likely that we see him held out until Week 9. The Steelers have a BYE week in Week 8 so it may make more sense just to be patient and make sure he's healthy and ready for the second half of the season. Then again, if the Steelers drop another couple of games in the coming weeks, it's possible we could see him back by Week 6 or 7. I'm no doctor though and NFL teams are notoriously reticent to reveal too much too early regarding injuries. So we'll just have to wait and see.
As for how the defense has been adjusting...I'd say they're doing okay but there's a tremendously noticeable dropoff between the play of the unit when he's not playing. Rather than re-hash all of it again here, I'd suggest reading this post I wrote this week about the defense without Polamalu, as well as some of the insightful comments offered up by the BTSC community. Here's another good take about his impact on the defense during 'short clock situations.