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The state of the Steelers Part Three: what actually happened this year

The record defined their level of play, but did it accurately reflect their future potential?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In her senior year my daughter was captain of the womens basketball team at the University of Delaware. They struggled and lost some games early, apparently validating the preseason predictions of a fifth place finish in their conference. But by the time they began their conference schedule they had improved their play significantly. Toward the end of the season they won a major showdown with an Old Dominion team that had finished in the Elite Eight the previous season, breaking ODU's run of ten consecutive regular season conference championships. As they prepared to meet in the conference tournament championship game an ODU assistant coach was asked what were the factors involved in the Blue Hens success. Her response was succinct "They have eight people who play very well together."

Teams are not static entities. The same collection of individuals may progress or regress depending upon any number of circumstances. Some of the factors are easily measurable and explainable. They may become stronger or weaker physically, more focused or burned out mentally, energized or spent emotionally. More difficult to discern or explain is how a team functions as a collective, the synergy that makes the unit either greater or less than the sum of its parts. Football is particularly complex and challenging in this regard. Compared to most other sports, say for example baseball, there are many more moving parts involved and a great deal more interdependence.

Because it has more discreet match ups and confrontations baseball is more amenable to statistical analysis. Compare this to fantasy football that cannot adequately address the defensive half of the game and is simply forced to ignore offensive line play.

In one of his film study pieces Paper Champions shows close up and in slow motion what happened during a running play by the Miami Dolphins. One player made a mistake,and took an improper angle resulting in a 55 yard run that led to their winning points. In this sense football can be unforgiving. But its important to note that in this particular case and many others the solution could be achieved with a scalpel, not a meat cleaver.

Thus, magically in the minds of many, the Steelers went from a team that lost to bottom feeders like Oakland and Minnesota early in the season and then smartly knocked off two playoff teams (Cincinnati and Green Bay) in two of their last three games. How was this possible? Same people for the most part, different teams. Development in action.

The most important roster segment

What did Matt Spaeth, David Johnson, Maurkice Pouncey, Fernando Velasco, LaRod Stephens-Howlings, Larry Foote, Curtis Brown, Heath Miller, Plaxico Burress,Sean Spence, LaMarr Woodley, Levi Brown, Nik Embernate and Nick Williams have in common? All spent all or part of the season on injured reserve, or the physically unable to perform lists. This doesn't count players like Le'Veon Bell and Cortez Allen who also missed significant time due to injury.

Just because I contend that there is a tendency to overemphasize talent doesn't mean that talent is not critically important to team success. So when players of this caliber, including Pro Bowl quality individuals go down and the glib response to the replacements and their coaches is 'The standard is the standard' then all you are doing is demonstrating that you lack understanding of the context and meaning of the term. It doesn't mean that we can expect the same results if David Paulson is the lead tight end instead of Heath Miller, or Vince Williams the starting inside linebacker as opposed to Larry Foote.

So instead of embracing the explanation for the Steelers defensive difficulties to the possibility that, in a system where one individual out of place can spell disaster, and you are forced to start two rookies in a scheme that is historically rookie averse, it is decided that Ol' Man LeBeau has finally lost it and should be let go, or the even more hysterical notion that the defense is bereft of talent altogether. Sometimes the simple explanations are the best. Is it remotely possible that the offenses difficulties in September might have had something to do with the fact that a talented but woefully inexperienced offensive line lost their leader, signal caller and most experienced player (and arguably its most talented player) in the first game, which among other things, as we have since discovered, resulted in severe restrictions in what schemes, such as the no huddle, could be used? Or that not having Le'Veon Bell and Heath Miller at full strength, and Matt Spaeth at all could make a difference? Or that having to start a rookie in the one defensive position requiring arguably the greatest level of savvy and experience could create challenges? And aren't these more plausible explanations then, say, a coaching staff that led the franchise to two Super Bowls waking up one morning unable to tie their shoes?

Reduce the injured reserve list by, say, a quarter, doesn't matter who and you think that one more win could have been squeezed out of 2013? Just a thought.

The Offense

Quarterback. If any area of the team drives home the point of the importance and significance of health it would be this one. As Neal Coolong has pointed out in a recent post, Ben Roethlisberger did not miss a snap this season, and that as much as anything contributed to Pittsburgh being able to remain relevant to the very end of virtually every game and to the very last moments of the regular season. If the ability of this offense to keep Ben as upright and clean in the latter half of this season is not just a fluke then a major goal has been reached and the Haley hire completely validated. Ben's viability as quarterback could be extended years beyond where so many feared given the punishment he typically absorbed. As long as Ben remains viable, the playoff chances of this team remain so as well. That's the value of a franchise quarterback. This also rendered moot any concerns as to whether Gradkowski and Landry Jones could serve as adequate backups. It wasn't a relevant question in 2013. That's big. Huge.

Offensive Line. Think carefully about this. When was the last time Steelers Nation wasn't tearing out their hair about the state of the offensive line? To be sure, there is a group of extremists who won't be satisfied until there are nine first round offensive linemen on the roster. Best to simply ignore them. The question raised by Hombre de Acero this week is closer to a more rational outlook; is obtaining an offensive lineman a must have or a nice to have? The issue focuses more on depth at the position which, if you haven't been comatose the last half decade, is a huge step forward.

So how did this come about? The Steelers entered the season minus some veteran stalwarts (Starks, Colon, Legursky). Youngsters Adams, DeCastro and Gilbert missed massive amounts of time in 2012 due to injuries, so much so in the case of DeCastro and Adams that they were second year players in name only. It was no big secret that this group was likely to struggle early as they needed to get the necessary game reps under their belts in order to jell. To say that Pouncey's injury was a setback is one of the great understatements. As the season evolved it became clear that the reflexive negativity directed at Gilbert was misplaced, Beachum's maturation began to win over those who had absolutely no use for him a year ago. DeCastro is placing himself where promised when he was drafted,in the conversation of being one of the better linemen in the league. Even Adams after being skewered and considered a failed talent by some early in the year acquitted himself well with his later opportunities.

But the big story was the acquisition and rapid acclimation of Fernando Velasco, sparking conversation among some to suggest that the team could afford to change his position or even part ways with Pouncey (I don't think this is a good idea in any case, but Pouncey is far likely to be ready to return at full strength before Velasco given both the timing and type of injuries involved). Also of significance is how well Cody Wallace and even Guy Whimper performed when necessary at the end.

The unexamined story here might be coaching. And, of course, the surprising dismissal of Jack Bicknell Jr. creates an even greater emphasis on the sense of the unknown and mystery. It would also, hopefully, drive home the point that it is presumptuous of many fans to assume that they possess the complete and accurate information of what goes on behind the closed doors of the Steelers training facilities and locker rooms in order to make confident and in some cases arrogant assertions as to the whys and wherefores of what is actually going on with the team. This is no great revelation, it is simple common sense. Anybody who has been part of a family or any organization knows that there is information concerning the internal dynamics and happenings that outsiders cannot and will not know. Anybody who claims to know why Bicknell Jr. was dismissed (or why Montgomery, Kugler or Everest left last year) are either lying or engaged in self delusion.

In any case my answer to Hombre is 'nice to have'. The current group is nowhere near its peak in terms of both individual growth and group cohesion. If they can stay reasonably healthy they have a chance to be one of the best in the league. If the injury holocaust continues, no amount of depth will be enough.

Tight ends. Heath Miller, David Johnson and Matt Spaeth all played well this year. The problem was that only at the end of the season was more than one of them healthy and playing to their potential at the same time. What looked in the off season to be an overabundance of talent turned out to be just barely enough as all three struggled with injury issues. David Paulson demonstrated early in the season that he lacked the blocking chops, for now at least, to be anything other than a liability at this position in a featured role. It should be noted that having Miller and Spaeth at the end also played a factor in the effectiveness of the blocking schemes at the end.

Wide Receivers. There's a lesson to be learned about the nature of hype when we consider the free agency of Mike Wallace. Wallace was considered by many to be the big prize in the free agent market for this season. As such the logic dictated that minus MW how could the the Pittsburgh receivers corps be anything but severely diminished. Two things we now know. Wallace wasn't that much of a big deal, which is not that unusual a truth with so called high profile free agents. Something to think about when the drumbeat begins among some for the team to ignore its principles and play that game this winter and early spring.

And the Steelers receivers were arguably the strongest unit on the team, certainly the most consistently excellent throughout the year. Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery had outstanding campaigns, but I want to put in a good word for Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders is one of those Steelers players like William Gay, Gilbert, Jason Worilds and others whose performances are viewed through a prism of negative emotions for many fans. His crimes seem to have been his injury history (some fans being very impatient with this) and daring to have a flirtation with another team. While many can't wait to see him go, I'm fine with him staying if practical. His level of talent has always been similar to that of Brown, and now that he's actually had a full and active season as a number two receiver there is the possibility that he could to develop to Brown's level if he remained in the Pittsburgh system.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those players whose performances are viewed through a prism of positive or hopeful emotions. Some will want to see Sanders pushed out the door because they believe that Derek Moye is a star in the making. Maybe he is, but not because many of his supporters' beliefs are valid. One only needs to look no further than former training camp legends Isaac Redman and Baron Batch to see how self generated fan hype can rapidly evaporate like the interest of children in their Christmas toys. Sanders is the bird in the hand. Moye, and to a lesser extent, Markus Wheaton are the ones in the bush.

Running backs. Its fair to say that there hasn't been this much excitement with the emergence of a Steelers running back for eight years. That was when Willie Parker unleased his speed onto the league. Le'Veon Bell easily was the star of an impressive rookie class. If he can manage to remain relatively healthy he provides a definitive answer to the need to have a solid feature running back. And while I just compared him to Parker, the more apt comparison might be to Franco Harris. It took the threat of professional death to do it but Jonathan Dwyer seems to have finally found the proper motivation to perform nearer to his potential.

Summary. By season's end some major goals for the offense had been achieved; the identification of a feature running back, the development of a competent offensive line, the full recovery of Heath Miller and keeping Ben Roethlisberger healthy. There are also some nice bonuses; the emergence of an All Pro caliber wide receiver, along with impressive levels of depth at that position and at tight end. Some people need to get and remain healthy, and there needs to be some tweaking here and there, plus the addition of some depth in areas like the offensive line would be welcome, but not since the late seventies have we seen a circumstance where the offense may become the clear strength of a Steelers team.

The Defense

Defensive line. I think you wouldn't be too off the mark if you perceived that some of us thought that Casey Hampton would be easily replaced, even improved upon in the Pittsburgh defensive front. I suspect that there is such a casual, even promiscuous run of suggestions to part ways with star players such as Hampton, and this year the likes of Troy, Woodley, Pouncey, even Ben in some corners because they severely underestimate how rare some of these talents are, consequently how unlikely it is that a comparable replacement will be easily put into place. Nonetheless, the overall impression of defensive line play is that a new generation of players have arrived and will play a critical role in reestablishing LeBeau's unit as one of the top in the NFL.

The best piece of good news is Cam Heyward's consistent, star quality of play. Reputation tends to lag behind performance in these cases, but it just a matter of time before Heyward finds himself in a Pro Bowl, a particularly impressive achievement given the fact that it is so much harder for linemen in this 3-4 system to stand out in such a manner that less perceptive observers would even acknowledge the quality of his work. Ziggy Hood's play improved to the point that his critics were forced to, if not fully endorse him, back off the talk that he was a failed talent. Steve McLendon played a little less well than had been hoped, Al Woods played better. The really big disappointment here is the inability of Brett Keisel to remain healthy throughout the year, which, as already mentioned, given the impatience of so many with injuries, has apparently sealed his future fate with the team.

Linebackers. I guess the most interesting thing is that there is serious discussion of this defense moving on successfully without James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Who would have thought? For those of you who are so confident that Woodley is gone or ought to be I have two words for you; Troy Polamalu. You may not want to be so quick to write Woodley off, because he may not be done, and the team may still need him regardless of the progress of players like Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.

Having to start Jones and, especially, Vince Williams early this year cost the team competitively in the short term, but most likely accelerated the development of each player in a manner that will pay big dividends in the near future. Regardless of what happens with Foote, Spence and whatever additions are to come there will be good depth at this position in the seasons to come.

Once again Lawrence Timmons' light was hidden under a bushel in order to compensate for the shortcoming of others. Here's hoping that those players around him can manage to hold up their end so his light can shine more brightly.

Secondary. People keep referring to the Steelers defense as aging, but at this point it would be only true in the secondary. And one of those old guys just made the Pro Bowl. Some think that Ike Taylor is washed up. Why? Calvin Johnson made him look bad. A lot of that going around. Reprising his efforts of 2011, William Gay gave naysayers very little to work with. A very solid season. What gives? Cortez Allen, still young and learning his craft, played better later in the year after recovering from early season injury. The arrow, as they say is pointing up for Shamarko Thomas, which is important if the general belief that Ryan Clark is done is true. His best moment may have come on a special teams play, saving a touchdown on that late kick return in Green Bay.

Summary. I take Dick LeBeau at his word that he wants to come back in part because he believes that the group of players he has are capable of returning to former heights. Some of the problems this group has faced have been transitional, some have to do with problems that range far beyond just Pittsburgh as the efforts on a league basis to amp up the offense on one hand and an incoherent response to legitimate safety issues have left the defensive game at sea.

Special Teams. Kudos to Danny Smith for producing a unit that didn't have us reflexively covering our eyes every time they took the field. Besides the major hiccup in Oakland, Shaun Suisham had another solid, even outstanding year, something we shouldn't take for granted. The punting situation still mystifies me, that fake in Green Bay left us with a good taste in our mouths for the season. Do you continue to allow an All Pro receiver to return punts? He does it very well, but still...

Overall summary. Honestly, does this look like a team in decline to you? No, its not the team that it was a few years ago, but three Super Bowl appearances in six years with two championships is a bit on the unusual side and if you're really expecting that sort of thing year in and year out I feel sorry for you because your future is one of extreme frustration. Yes, the team has some holes, and there is still the need for growth all around (even Tomlin is still pretty young from a head coaching perspective). But it also needs to be acknowledged that this was also an unlucky team as well. They didn't make the playoffs this year. 'Deserve' has nothing to do with it.

Part IV will address league wide issues that will effect the team's prospects as well as a few predictions about the off season narratives that we will likely be addressing over the coming months.