TAKING A BOW—Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress (80) bows after making a touchdown catch as Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden (23) walks away on Dec. 30, 2012, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
by Ulish Carter
Courier Staff Writer
Way back in 2003 the Steelers finished with a 6-10 record causing many fans to demand that Bill Cowher be run out of town and for the total overhauling of the team. According to the critics, the defense was too old and the offense was ineffective.
But the Steelers, unlike chronic losers like Cleveland, Kansas City, Cincinnati and others didn’t panic, but chose to simply make a few changes which led to the best season in their history in 2004 with a 15-1 record, followed by a 12-4 season in 2005 culminating with a Super Bowl title.
So what will the Steelers do after an 8-8 season which is the worst in Mike Tomlin’s six year career as head coach?
The criticism this year is that the defense is too old, and the offense is too inconsistent. So what can be done to correct the problems?
First of all the defense is just fine. With Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and LaMarr Woodley missing a large portion of the season, they still finished as the number one defense in the NFL.
There has been talk about not bringing Harrison, Casey Hampton, Barry Foote and Keenan Lewis back. Hampton and Foote because of age; Harrison because of his big contract, and Lewis because after an outstanding season, he may be offered big bucks from other teams because his contract is up.
Harrison has to be brought back because there’s no one on the Steelers or in the league who can replace him. He’s still one of the five best in the NFL, and without him teams can keep on stopping Woodley. But with the two healthy and Lawrence Timmons playing the best ball of his career, the Steelers would continue to have the best set of linebackers in the game. Foote can be replaced by one of the young reserves, but why mess with a good thing.
If Hampton is not brought back it will be because the team feels that young second year player Steve McLendon is ready to start. He has looked very impressive with limited playing time. Even with Hampton back they will share the nose tackle slot. Brett Keisel is old, but is playing as well as any defensive end in the game and Ziggy Hood is getting better each year.
Even though Curtez Allen was impressive filling in for the injured Taylor, he’s still not as good as either Taylor or Lewis. Lewis, in his third season, is a Pro-Bowl caliber player who is desperately needed if the Steelers hope to be a Super Bowl contender. With him returning to the team with Taylor, Polamalu, and Ryan Clark, who also has developed into one of the 5 best safeties in the game, the Steelers defense would be second to none. Who cares about age? The teams battling for the top draft picks are generally the youngest teams in the league and perennial losers. Veterans win, because it takes time for teams to jell together.
On the offensive side of the ball there has to be changes but not massive changes. They must come up with a way to score more points because they cannot beat Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or all these young guns at quarterback scoring 20 or less a game.
Look for Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall to be gone, because Wallace is asking for superstar money when he’s a one dimensional player who has a long way to go before even being mentioned in the same breath with the top receivers in the league. Mendenhall has been injury prone, and has a big contract. Both Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have proven they can be effective, and Chris Rainey will also see more action next season.
The Steelers problem is keeping a healthy offensive line and improving the deteriorating production from Ben Roethlisberger. It’s time he stop living off the past. What has he done in the past two years to put him among the elite quarterbacks in the league, especially with all these youngsters hitting the league? He has had a great career, but that don’t win games today.
With rookies David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Kevin Beachum all getting critical playing time on the line this year because of injuries they will be much improved next year, and if Willie Colon can stay healthy he showed he can be one of the better run blocking guards in the league. He and Max Starks make a solid combo on the blind side and shouldn’t be tampered with.
With Wallace gone, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller should have Pro-Bowl seasons, with Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress giving them one of the best groups of receivers in the league. Signing Burress is a key to the return of Roethlisberger to past years effectiveness because he gives him a big target, and maturity on the field. Hines Ward was missed dearly last season mostly because of his leadership.
They also need to pick up a quarterback in the draft and sign a veteran quarterback to back up Ben. Even though Charlie Batch has performed well when given a chance, it’s clear the coaching staff doesn’t have the confidence in him, and Byron Leftwitch is injury prone. They need a veteran who can come in and win if Ben gets hurt, and a youngster who can be groomed to take over for Ben in the near future, instead of waiting until he becomes totally ineffective with age.
No the Steelers don’t need a major overhaul, they just need a few tweaks here and there, starting at the quarterback position. In a league that has moved from the running game and hard nose defense to the high scoring passing game with guys like Manning, Brady, Aaron Rogers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck, to make it to the Super Bowl, which Pittsburghers expect, 20 or less points a game is not going to do it. And the buck stops at the quarterback whether we want to admit or not.
After a humbling season, look for Ben and coach Mike Tomlin to get serious about improving the offense, which is still young. If the offensive production is improved look for the Steelers to once again be in the Super Bowl hunt next season. If it isn’t, look for changes at quarterback and the head coaching slot in the very near future.