Despite making the transition from long time head coach Bill Cowher to first time head coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers had a solid freshman campaign in 2007 led by a stingy, attacking defense, a good running game, and quality QB play from Ben Roethlisberger.
However, the team went 3-5 down the stretch and repeatedly played poorly when matched against other quality teams. Those three wins came against the Dolphins, Bengals, and the Rams, who combined for a 13-35 record last season. The loss of superstar RB Willie Parker can’t be entirely to blame as he wasn’t lost until week16. Facts are, the Steelers played like one of the NFL’s elite teams in the first half of the year, taking advantage of a softer schedule, then stumbled through the second half when injuries and quality of opposition began to catch up with them.
Let’s break the team down into three areas (Offense, Defense, and Special Teams/Coaching) and preview what to look forward to in 2008.
Part I: The Offense
QB: Ben Roethlisberger
RB: Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall
FB: Carey Davis
WR: Santonio Holmes
WR: Hines Ward
TE: Heath Miller
LT: Marvel Smith
LG: Chris Kemoeatu
C: Justin Hartwig
RG: Kendall Simmons
RT: Willie Colon
The loss of Ken Wisenhunt to Pittsburgh West (Phoenix) led to an even more productive year under new O-Coordinator Bruce Ariens, an offensive assistant with the team since 2004. The Steelers pounded the ball with the run and then used play action, short routes to Hines Ward and Heath Miller, and occasionally went deep over the top to emerging star Santonio Holmes. It’s a simple scheme/philosophy that I prefer and the Steelers have the talent suited for it given their running game, their speed at receiver, and Roethlisberger’s ability to throw the deep ball.
These days when you think of the Steelers offense you think of Roethlisberger given he’s the biggest offensive name they have. Early in his career the Steelers wanted to limit his throws and he was basically a one read QB, then he would scramble and make plays if that read wasn’t open. They did like to throw the ball early on with Big Ben, then run the clock out in the second half. Here’s a look at Roethlisberger’s pass attempts per games started throughout his career:
So it’s obvious the Steelers are getting more comfortable with him throwing the ball more often. A lot of idiots in the national media undervalue Roethlisberger, frequently heaping undeserved praise on lesser talents like Tony Romo or Carson Palmer, while Ben chugs along with a career 92.5 QB rating and career .700 winning percentage. He throws a pretty accurate ball and has a good arm, and his strength and elusiveness in the pocket has saved the Steelers countless sacks and led to many big plays.
However, his biggest issue is that he gets sacked quite often, 93 times in the past two seasons. Sure our atrocious line is mostly at fault but Ben is also not the greatest reader of defenses. Coupled with his overconfidence that he can escape any jam, some of those sacks he saves he gives right back because of his tendency to hold on to the ball a bit too long.
I like Willie Parker a lot. He’s not a great between-the-tackles runner, but he puts up an effort and is better than most given a guy with his speed. He’s also a capable blitz pickup and receiver out of the backfield. I’d imagine the injury would slow him down a bit, but as per usual the Steelers do a great job of picking up somebody in the draft who will flourish. I liked Mendenhall quite a bit out of Illinois. The big thing that should hold him back as a rookie is blitz pickup, which most rookies struggle with and with Big Ben’s weakness in recognizing blitzes, they’ll probably keep him away from passing downs early on. But now that they have a Mr. Inside (Rashard) and a Mr. Outside (Fast Willie), their running game might be the best it’s been in over a decade.
Hines Ward gets more name recognition, but Santonio Holmes is the better receiver. Ward finished 33rd in DPAR last year to Holmes’ 11th. Holmes is a rare receiver because he’s great at getting the YAC and can burn defenders deep. Ward is pretty much a short route receiver these days as he only averaged 10.3 yards a catch in the Pittsburgh scheme which likes to throw the ball deep. Heath Miller is a greatly underrated TE who finished 4th in DPAR last season. He’s also a great blocker. The only thing preventing Miller from being a Tony Gonzalez type of TE is his lack of speed. Still, this is a pretty solid group of receivers.
The O-Line was a mess as they really missed C Jeff Hastings and couldn’t find a suitable replacement in undersized Sean Mahan. They’ll want to give the starting center position to Justin Hartwig, who was a bust for the Panthers, and I can’t see him losing the job unless his left leg gets replaced by a broomstick and he gets a role in the next “Pirates of the Carribean” movie. Marvel Smith has been a solid left tackle over the years, although was lost last year to a serious back injury which often signals the end of a career. He has looked pretty good so far in the preseason but we’ll have to see how he holds up over a 16 game schedule. Willie Colon beat out Max Starks at right tackle and appears to once again have the inside track for the job this year, despite Starks having the Transition tag slapped on him making him the team’s 2nd highest paid player. Kendall Simmons is more or less serviceable. They let Alan Faneca go, mainly due to the organization being ridiculously cheap bastards not giving out big contracts to players in their 30’s. Faneca’s play did appear to drop off last year, so perhaps the decision was a wise one.