As I feel I can probably speak for most of you, I was thrilled to see the Steelers lose the Superbowl, but still deflated they had yet another dominating year, resulting in now twice as many Superbowl appearances as the Bengals have had playoff games during the Mike Brown era. How is it we achieve moderate success in 2005 and 2010, but fall back to the gutters so quickly - while Pittsburgh continues to win every year? What makes this worse is knowing the overwhelming adversity Pittsburgh went through this year, which further proves why they are an elite franchise, whereas we are not. I copied and pasted the following facts from a recent post published by "Maryrose" on the Steelers blog (http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com/2011/2/7/1979581/despite-loss-in-super-bowl-xlv-steelers-gave-their-nation-a-wonderful),
- Their franchise quarterback uses poor social judgment and was banished for the first quarter of the season.
- One of the best clutch wide receivers in the league puts one more straw on the camel's back and is banished for a fifth-round pick just prior to the Draft.
- The team loses both starting offensive tackles (Starks and Colon) from an already mediocre line, causing them to ask a 35-year-old left tackle (Adams) to move to the right side for the first time in his life, and asking a serviceable back-up (Scott) to occupy the most important position on the offensive line at left tackle.
- Training camp was an awkward balancing act between giving reps to Big Ben and giving them to some other signal caller.
- The second-string quarterback was hurt in the exhibition season, necessitating the promotion of the #3 quarterback.
- The #3 quarterback goes down, leaving #4 to play against two teams who ended up winning 23 games this season.
- The team loses both kicking specialists. The punter went down to injured reserve while the enigmatic kicker also decided to place another straw on the camel's back and was dispatched in midseason.
- One of the team's three best defenders (Harrison) becomes the NFL's poster boy for how the game can no longer be played like it has been for 90 years, causing confusion, uncertainty and a delicate psychological predicament for the head coach and the clubhouse.
- Another of the three top defenders (Aaron Smith) goes down with a triceps injury in October, never to be seen on the field again.
- The final defender in that trilogy (Polamalu) nurses a heel injury and clearly was just a percentage of what he should have been, when the team needed him most.
- Casey Hampton, the lynchpin of their defensive line is 33 years old, missed a couple games in the beginning of the year (which they won anyways) and struggles with a nagging hamstring injury.
- Their prowbowl center goes down early in the AFC Champsionship game
To be honest, I don't know any definite answers and it's killing me as I sit hear pondering it. Obviously, they have passionate ownership who spend more money in a lot of different areas (not just players, but scouting, medical staff, indoor practice facility, you-name-it). But is that it? I think their comparitive success far exceeds the extra money they spend over us. So, I think it goes beyond the money factor.
Below are a few suppositions I have and hopefully, we'll begin seeing improvement in these areas during the new Marvin/Gruden era.
1) The System. I often consider the parting of Dick Lebeau to be the biggest loss of this decade. The defensive system he has with Pittsburgh has proven to be the paradigm of the NFL, as they have remained eilte every year, depite constant reloading of talent. One thing that is impressive with his system is that none of his current starting players came in as immidiate starters their first year. In fact, many of them took a few years to develop and grasp the defense before being thrust into their current starting spots. Even Polamalu didn't start his rookie year, nor did Ziggy Hood (their 2009 first round pick) get any starts despite Aaron Smith going down early in the season. This, I feel is a testament to the complexity of the design and how intricate it is. It's obvious that their defense is a a collective body of work, where each individual is gradually incorporated over the coarse of years to mitigate the chaos of a bunch of new players constantly missing their assignments. Compare that to the Bengals who shove rookies and FA's immidiately into starting roles every year.
2) Dominating defensive players in the box. Where it's at. You can't overestimate the value of having guys like Harrison and Woodley on the outsides who are strong enough to play the run, explosive enough to rush the QB, quick enough to fall back into coverage, and disciplined/smart enough to determine where to be on each play. A monster in the middle, Hampton, who can collapse the offensive line and disrupt any running plays between the tackles. A pair of DE's who are able to hold their ground while determining where the play is going and unselfishly choosing between rush, containment, and plugging the correct holes. A pair of middle linebackers who are smart enough to anticipate where the play is going, cover the right players, and hit the right holes. Much of this has to do with development they recieve over the years (refer to point one), though I think a lot of it comes down to talent - neither of which we have in similar value. Peko and Sims are adequate, but not a dominating force like Hampton. Rey is athletic enough, but is often out of position. Rivers, BJ, and MJ get blocked too easily. The only impact players I'd say we arguably have are Dunlap and in a limited way on 3rd downs, Atkins. Yes, we have far superior corners, but if we can't stop the run or reduce the pocket time, our CBs are negated.
3) Emphasis on backups. What grabs most of the attention on a team is it's starters. However, what's important to realize is reserves play a prominent role and are often called upon to fill in voids left by injured starters. Since it's hard to compare backups (because we don't watch them play a lot), I will point to two examples. The first is the constant reloading of talent every year by the Steelers without overly dipping into free agency and starting rookies (Pouncey and Miller are two of the enigmas). The second example is their offensive line this year. We've heard all season about how they were depleted and horrible, yet watching them in the Superbowl without their two starting tackles and center, they still dominated in the trenches against an elite GB defensive line with a dominating NT and sack-machine OLB, opening up holes for Mendenhall and giving Ben time to throw. They accomplished this by picking up two former starting tackles (Adams and Scott) and retaining a valued center (Legursky) during the offseason to provide insurance for Starks, Colon, and Pouncey. Could you imagine the Bengals trying to play without Whitworth, Cook, and Smith? Just without Smith, our line struggled severely this year. Yes, part of this is due to scouting which can identify better talent in latter rounds, but a lot of it comes down to committment to backing up the current starters and providing a foundation for the future.
4) The mentality. While attempting to avoid the use of cliches and platitudes about teamwork and unselfishness, the Steelers seem to have a much more disciplined mentality than other teams. Hines Ward for example is a receiver who prides himself on blocking - and bestows that upon his fellow receivers as well. You don't hear much from their skilled position players. Their defensive player of the year remains quiet and carries on in an always humble manner. Mendenhal will dominate a game and then recieve limited carries the next without complaint. Their constant rotation of recievers will consistently get an evenly distributed number of receptions. And of course their QB can be the mockery of the NFL, get suspended for four games, break his foot along with numerous other injuries, and still carry on in an undisrupted manner. I'm not saying the Bengals have any selfish players or anything.... But you can sense there is just a stronger mentality on that team that inspires a higher effort level and unselfish play.
Bottom line: I think we still have the potential to reach this level within a few years. It started with rehiring Marvin Lewis to maintain unit cohesion and discipline (which is what I think Marvin provides), is in the works with Zimmer going into his third year, and can be reached with a more dedicated effort to replenishing our reserve players with legitimate talent, upgrading our front seven, and avoiding personalities like Chad and TO. Otherwise, we'll continue having up and down years as we struggle to fill gaps with last-minute additions.