Keys to the Steelers Success in 2011

The 2011 NFL regular season is now upon us.

The Steelers 2011 off season started in Dallas on the sour note Super Bowl XLV’s final gun. Since then, collegiate pre-draft visits, NFL Owners-NFLPA labor mediation, the lockout, the draft, training camp, free agent signings, and preseason have occupied the attention of Steelers Nation.

All of that is well and good, but the hopes of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 come down to two words: Balance and Opportunity.

Pittsburgh and the Punditry

To read what’s written in some quarters the Steelers are more likely to contend for the first draft pick and Lombardi Number Seven this season.

The litany of the Steelers sins goes something like this:

  • The defense is too old,
  • James Harrison isn’t fully recovered from back surgery
  • The Steelers have one viable corner when three are needed
  • Pittsburgh has no offensive line strategy

Either collectively or individually these issues could derail the Steelers season. But every NFL team has strengths and weaknesses – the question as always lies in how you deal with them.

Black and Gold and the Mean Between Two Extremes

Aristotle taught that virtue is about moderating between two extremes. The Steelers success or failure in 2011 will be measured by their ability to do that on the football field.

Age Meets Maturity

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is the NFL’s oldest. This will matter for little if the Steelers match age with maturity.

3 of the last 4 of Aaron Smith’s seasons have ended in injury. And he’s a year older.

  • Ziggy Hood is also a year older – and a year better. Ditto Steve McClendon.

If the Steelers can rotate Smith, McClendon, and 1st round draft pick Cam Heyward, they can benefit from the energy that youth brings and the wisdom of aging veterans.

Don’t Be Timid About Putting Your Foote Forward

James Harrison’s recovery from back surgery is a serious issue, and Jason Worilds isn’t ready for Prime Time.

  • Perhaps its time for a change up in rhythm at OLB and
  • maybe Larry Foote becomes the unit’s unsung hero

Over the last three years, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have unleash fury on opposing quarterbacks unlike no other outside linebacking duo. But their play has followed a similar pattern – Harrison starts out strong then tapers off while Woodley starts slow and finishes with a bang.

2011 would seem to be an appropriate time to reverse that pattern.

That only works if James Harrison back can heal in the middle of the rigors of an NFL season, which might be totally unrealistic.

If that turns out to be the case and the pass rush suffers, then Dick LeBeau needs to balance the situation by inserting Larry Foote into the lineup and begin working Lawrence Timmons into the rotation at outside linebacker.

Finding Equilibrium Between Coverage and Pressure

It’d be nice to think that the Steelers can get contributions from Curtis Brown or Cortez Allen the way they got them from Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown last year.

And that might happen, but Dick LeBeau cannot bank on it.

But the Steelers corners were good enough to get them to the Super Bowl last year. To transform a Super Bowl appearance into a win Dick LeBeau need to cleverly disguise coverages and pressure schemes. Perhaps no where is the Aristotelian concept of virtue more applicable than here. LeBeau needs to finely calibrate the mix.

Be that as it may, as Mike Tomlin says, “schemes are overrated.”

Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake are smart enough to get their players in position, but the Steelers corners must execute and, yes, Troy Polamlau must stay healthy.

Sean Kugler Must Do His Thing

Injuries kept the Steelers offensive line in almost constant disarray last year, yet offensive line coach Sean Kugler shifted guys in and out of position all year long, some times on a series-by-series if not play by play basis.

Having just written extensively on Behind the Steel Curtain about the Steelers offensive line, there isn’t much more to say here.

The Steelers have won pretty big with their “situational offensive line strategy” of late. Kugler is no stranger to balancing personnel against constantly shifting needs and that trait should continue to serve him and the Steelers well in 2011.

Opportunity Knocks

It is so important that pull off the balancing feats indicated above, because their Super Bowl window remains open.

Super Bowl windows are temperamental things. Sometimes they slam shut quickly, as they did for Tampa Bay after 2002.

Other times they remain, or appear to remain, open indefinitely is it did for the Dallas Cowboys who made Super Bowl appearances in ’75, ’77, ’78 and then tantalized their fans with NFC Conference Championship in ’80, ’81, and ’82 before fading into the mid-80’s.

The Steelers have their Super Bowl window of opportunity and they must seize it.

Book makers would say the percentages are against this happening.

  • …Only a handful of recent Super Bowl losers even made it to the playoffs in the succeeding season.
  • …The 1971 Dallas Cowboys were the last team to flip their Super Bowl fortunes for the better in a single season.
  • …Wikipedia, that ever infalable source, even has its own “Super Bowl Losers Curse” page.

And that’s what makes the Steelers situation so beautiful because you needn’t bother breathing a word of that to Mike Tomlin.

He doesn’t care.

The Past is the Past. They Don’t Write Our Story, We Write Our Own Story.

And he’s right.

To bring home Lombardi Number Seven the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers might need to walk a few tight ropes, but their destiny is in their hands.

Sunday against the Ravens we’ll began to see what the Steelers can make of that destiny.

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