When pundits write about how they expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to struggle and miss the playoffs this season, we Cincinnatians can feel the temperature rising in the East. It wafts westward like a backward storm, heating the air with pure frustration and anger. The good people in Pittsburgh care deeply about their football and when their team is brushed aside like the top of a perfectly good onion, it drives them simply bonkers.
The worst part for them is that this year it's true. After priding themselves for winning and avoiding trouble for so long, the Steelers have suffered a brief rash of serious player-conduct concerns. Their tumultuous offseason includes franchise quarterback, Big Ben Roethlisberger being suspended anywhere from four to six games, and starting wide receiver Santonio Holmes was traded to the New York Jets. Many, including myself, feel that these setbacks alone are enough to keep them from playing football into January.
There are other concerns though. Even if Big Ben and Holmes were playing, it was no lock that they would be real challengers for the division.
Steeler fans will tell you that last year was an anomaly brought on by Troy Polomalu's knee injury and that they turned it on too late in the season to recover from a five-game losing streak. But the fact is, they were too inconsistent to win regularly, and they didn't respond well after a loss. Mike Tomlin is a promising young head coach for sure, but I feel perhaps his reputation exceeds him some.
I admit that my reasons for such an opinion are somewhat flimsy. To me he seems more of a rah-rah coach than a hardcore tactician, and I feel his adjustments during games are weak. Time and again, we watched the Steelers squander wins late in the game last year. In saying that, any NFL head coach is an adequate tactician who, for the most part, has earned the head coaching spot by demonstrating such a prowess, though he appears not to do much actual coaching during the games. I'm certain that I am overstepping my knowledge of what takes place on an NFL sideline, particularly along the Steelers', but that's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.
Another coach on their staff worth mentioning is a different story. As long as Dick LeBeau is there, Pittsburgh's defense should always be a concern for the rest of the league. Mike Zimmer is good; Dick LeBeau is the master. Not only that, but he's rejoined with his best pupil who's absence last year demonstrated his impact on the game: Troy Polomalu.
There is no defensive player who leaves an imprint on the gridiron quite the same as Polomalu. He alone influences the outcome of games, and when he goes down, so do the chances of a Steelers win that day. The Bengals were twice the beneficiary of such an injury and five other teams also exploited that weakness. Yet, even though he is back, after hampered by a knee problem for most of last year, it's a fair question to ask if he will hold up for all 16 games this season. With him, they are a storybook defense. Without him, they're only pretty good.
With the revamped passing game of both Cincinnati and Baltimore, Pittsburgh needs to prove it can stop its divisional rivals when they go to the air. Their secondary is solid but not all that deep, and teams with multiple-receiver sets can easily find mismatches when spreading it out. The Steelers will always provide a healthy pass rush—and they added even more to that in this year's draft—and they are always confusing as hell for quarterbacks, but give Carson Palmer or Joe Flacco some time and watch the Pittsburgh frustration mount. Sure they can stop the run—they always do that too—but a potentially vulnerable secondary will allow teams to win through the air.
Once more, with the Bengals great corner tandem, and the Ravens improved pass rush, the Steelers have stiff competition to the division's best defense this year.
Of course, even with Troy, but without Ben, there is still a major concern. Even if the suspension goes only four games, that still leaves the young and inexperienced Dennis Dixon or the ancient, dusty Charlie Batch at the helm. Dixon played well in his only start last year against Baltimore, but one is allowed to wonder if he can put together any kind of string of consistent play, especially now that teams can scout him some. Batch seems very old, and could suffer a concussion in the parking lot on the way to his car. Neither scare me all that much, and it would surprise me if they won two games during Ben's suspension.
Once Ben does return, I'm not sure he can continue his scrambling ways and stay healthy. We watched him take many, many hits last year, some resulting in concussions, and was sacked far more than was necessary. This, in large part, was not due to any offensive-line deficiencies, but rather Ben's own refusal to give up on a play. He is certainly an entertaining player, but his flare for the dramatics might end up with him battered on the bench. The other two noteworthy divisional quarterbacks get the nod for this reason.
As for their running game, it is solid, but again, not without concern. Rashad Mendenhall is a capable young back who should improve even more next season, but he too is not consistent, and was especially weak against the AFC North last year. Gone is Willie Parker, but still here is Mewelde Moore who has been a real gamer for Pittsburgh during his career. Moore is a classic third-down back who reminds me of former Patriot Kevin Faulk, but there doesn't seem to be any everydown-back replacement should Mendenhall become hurt at any point. Ray Rice and Cedric Benson are better and I rank Mendenhall third in AFC North running backs.
The Steeler receiving corps also lacks depth and name recognition, and until Limus Sweed stops dropping touchdowns, they aren't much of a threat either. Heath Miller is a great player, and the division's best tight end, but their combined passing arsenal is marginally worse than Cincy's and Bmore's retooled attack.
But out of all that doom and gloom coming form Pittsburgh, it's the Steelers' special teams that might be the season's backbreaker. It was awful last season, giving up four touchdowns on returns including the decisive score by Bernard Scott that allowed the Bengals to win their second contest against the Steel Curtain in 2009. It was so bad that ownership decided it needed to replace the special teams coach; welcome Al Everest, you gotta a lot of work to do.
The Steelers smell like a team in decline to me. I have the utmost respect for their organization and even though I dislike them, I admit they know how to stay competitive. I don't see Pittsburgh rolling over and slipping to a five or six-win season, but the mystique just isn't there anymore. Maybe it's the troubles and the suspensions they've recently incurred, but I think it's more than that.
I think they have become an old team in key spots and are led by only a decent coach. I think they have a franchise quarterback who is no longer loved in the their city and whose style of play will cut his career short regardless of where he ends up. I think they have limited receiver options which was a problem that plagued the Bengals' season in '09. But beyond all of that, I think they are simply outclassed by two other divisional opponents, and that can be tough to overcome for any team, no matter how storied or revered.
Mojokong—I've booted my objectivity out of my house for a while; my apologies to the offended.