Pittsburgh’s Goin’ To The Super Bowl: Overview

right-logo-color-free-shipping-2005-pittsburgh-font-b-steelers-b-font-font-b-super-bThis is Part 1 of what will be an ongoing series as we start to work ourselves up for the draft. Each week I will pick a position of (at least putative) need and have a look where the Steelers stand.

And as for the title—well, isn’t that the idea? I gather the feeling over at the Southside facility is that any year in which a Lombardi isn’t added to the collection is considered, at least on some level, a failure.

Besides, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, as the Steelers have moved through and emerged from the team rebuild they never admitted was happening, we’ve had the following progression:

  • 2012: 8-8 season, third in the AFC North, no playoffs (naturally)
  • 2013: 8-8 season, second in the AFC North, no playoffs
  • 2014: 11-5 season, won the AFC North, lost the Wild Card round (to Baltimore)
  • 2015: 10-6 season, second in the AFC North, won the Wild Card game (Cincinnati) and lost Divisional Round (Broncos)
  • 2016: 11-5 season, first in the AFC North, won the Wild Card game (Miami), won the Divisional Round (Kansas City,) lost the AFC Championship game (New England.)

As you can see, there’s a pretty clear upward trajectory. The next step is obviously to win the division, preferably get a bye week, win the AFC Championship game, and go to the Super Bowl. So it isn’t a question of whether, but just of how.

And I admit that many a slip can take place between the cup and the lip. But it seems to me as if the general outline is clearly in place. Now the Steelers just have to figure out how to get past the Patriots, because unless something happens to Tom Brady, it seems pretty obvious they are poised for a few more runs at the ultimate prize.

There was a great deal of mockery directed at the Baltimore Ravens emerging from Steeler Nation before the start of the 2011 season. The word got out that the Ravens had hired a consultant to figure out how to beat the Steelers, because it was pretty clear that their path to the Super Bowl had to go through Pittsburgh, or so everyone thought. The humiliation the Steelers suffered at the hands of the Ravens in the opening game of the season forced the eating of a great deal of crow by said mockers. Whatever the consultant told the Ravens’ staff to do, he or she clearly knew their stuff.

It didn’t hurt the Ravens’ cause that the Steelers’ defense got “old and slow” in a big hurry. And while ultimately the Steelers’ defense clambered back up into a top-ten defense in 2011, the unpalatable truth was, age was definitely catching up with them.

The brain trust in the Steelers’ organization obviously thought there was a least a chance of getting another championship run out of the defensive core which had performed so amazingly well. How well had they performed? Well, let’s look at the yearly rankings from Football Outsiders since 2004, as that begins the current championship age. (These are FO’s Team Defense rankings):

  • 2004: No. 3
  • 2005: No. 3
  • 2006: No. 9
  • 2007: No. 3
  • 2008: No. 1
  • 2009: No. 9
  • 2010: No. 1
  • 2011: No. 7

Even by 2009 straws were beginning to show which way the wind was blowing—which is pretty easy to say in retrospect. Troy Polamalu missed 11 games. Aaron Smith missed 10. There were plenty of injuries on offense, including to Ben Roethlisberger, but in the defense in particular the older players began to get hurt more easily and take longer to recover.

Perhaps the worst result of trying to keep the band together for one more tour, as it were, is the effect it had on the usual policy of the Steelers, which had been to cut a guy a year too early rather than a year too late. By taking the chance of keeping players who had perhaps already peaked and were on the downhill side of the curve, the Steelers not only got older and slower but they blocked the development of some younger (and perhaps faster) players, which had a definite trickle-down effect and made for a rather longer and more painful rebuild than perhaps they anticipated.

It wasn’t always the old guys who were getting slower, either. One of the unanticipated consequences of signing LaMarr Woodley to a big contract was his quick plunge from a major force to an oft-injured liability. Although there were some (such as the founder and then-editor of Behind the Steel Curtain, Michael Bean) who believed re-signing Woodley would be a mistake, most of us were thrilled the Steelers had locked him up. (Naturally, LaMarr Woodley’s dramatic drop in production wasn’t actually necessarily a consequence of his new contract, but the timing made a lot of people assume that it was…)

Fast-forward to 2016, and nobody could call the Steelers’ defense old or slow. At most positions it was the youngest it had been in living memory. Three rookies starting on the defense by about Week 8? Unheard of. And the new-look Steelers are built for speed.

There are those who have deplored this trend, but I personally believe that, whether or not they hired a consultant to tell them how to beat the Patriots, anybody who watched the Super Bowl a few weeks back couldn’t help but conclude that a young, speedy defense was the way to beat Tom Brady, all the way up to the point where he didn’t allow them to beat him.

The Falcons made a crucial error, of course. They allowed New England’s offense to have the ball far too long, and the young, speedy defense started looking old and tired by the time they had been on the field about 36 and a half minutes. And that was before overtime began. The Patriots defense wasn’t stellar early in the game, but they did prevent a lot of third down conversions. The Falcons only converted one out of eight attempts. A few more of those would have helped a lot. A quick-strike offense is all very well until your defenses’ tongues are hanging out.

All this is by way of saying that I believe the Steelers have been patiently accumulating the pieces to play a similar defensive scheme to what the Falcons deployed so successfully, at least for about the first three quarters of the game.

Offensively the Steelers, assuming the receivers aren’t decimated the way they were in 2016, have the ability to put up a lead early and then just grind away at the opposing defense. This is, of course, assuming that Pro Football Focus’ top free agent of this off-season, Le’Veon Bell*, is securely in the fold, manages to not get suspended, and gets some help so he doesn’t wear down by the end of the season.

Defensively I believe they are getting really close. Obviously somebody is going to have to take over the positions currently manned by old guys—ROLB (James Harrison), slot corner (William Gay,) and buck linebacker (Lawrence Timmons.) All of the above probably have something left in the tank—I’m guessing Timmons has the most. Gay, unless he had an unreported injury as the season drew to a close (those seemed to be going around the locker room) got old in a big hurry. He was the Steelers’ best corner overall, at least according to PFF. (In fact PFF graded him higher in 2016 than any other season in his career.) But he started to look much less effective towards the end, and his snap count dropped during the post-season, so I’m assuming it looked that way to the coaching staff as well. And James Harrison probably shouldn’t be dropping into coverage anymore. This isn’t 2008, and he’s eight years older than he was when he took an interception to the house in the Super Bowl.

So as the long offseason drags on I will be looking at each position group to see where the weak spots may be and what might be done about them. And since plenty of other people will be doing this—people who know more than I do about the draft, the salary cap—heck, most of the stuff that goes into building a team, I might also have a quick look to see how each position group looks, literally. This will, of course, slot beautifully into my BLA** mock drafts.

So in the meantime, let’s all practice our towel-twirling technique, and before you belt out your usual tunes in the shower you might warm up with a few heart-felt choruses of “Here We Go Steelers”…

*Here’s what PFF said about him:

1. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

There is little to no chance that the Pittsburgh Steelers allow one of the league’s best running backs to hit the open market. Le’Veon Bell is a complete weapon for Pittsburgh, and one that helps them immeasurably as both a runner and receiver. He has had some issues with suspensions that make long-term contract negotiations interesting, but he is currently the best player scheduled to hit free agency.

**Best Looking player Available—a patented metric for Momma’s Mock Drafts.

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