Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his student fall flat on his face in the first quarter of the season, pick himself up and charge ahead, only to stumble badly again, then finish things off with a very respectable head of steam, here is part III of the Pittsburgh Steelers final report card for the 2013 season, covering the Steelers special teams and coaches. Note, these are overall grades for the defense, and not averages of the weekly report cards. And as always, no other Steelers report cards were consulted.
The Pittsburgh Steelers history of special teams coaches is that of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Staring with Jon Kolb, the franchise has alternated bad special teams coaches with good ones (with the exception of Bobby April-Ron Zook). After the Amos Jones disaster, Danny Smith would appear to continue that trend.
In 2013 Steelers Nation got a chance to see what its like to make splash plays, with several key kicks returned for long yardages, a kick returned for a touchdown and a successful fake punt, in addition to a blocked field goal and blocked extra point. Antonio Brown proved himself to be a deadly punt returner, Emmanuel Sanders showed he was a dangerous kick returner, and Felix Jones was solid.
With that said, the punting unit struggled mightily early on, one punt was blocked and another negated by a blocked kick, and too many long returns were made in critical situations. Shaun Suisham was next to perfect, and while his two misses gave the Raiders their margin, his field goals gave the Steelers insurance in more than a few games. Mat McBride took over for a struggling Zoltan Mesko, and proved himself to be a serviceable upgrade. Grade: B-
Todd Haley was a lightning rod for criticism during the Steelers 0-4 start. Many observed that the Steelers only moved the ball or scored when in the no huddle. Yet, when the offensive line stabilized and Haley got his top tight end and rushers back history repeated itself. During the middle of 2012 when the offensive line stabilized and the running backs got healthy, Haley’s offense proved itself to be very effective. Ben Roethlisberger and Haley clearly have some differences, witness timeouts burned late vs. Miami and Baltimore, but the two are proving good for each other
Somewhere in the bowels of Steelers Nation, someone got the brilliant brainwave that after 50 plus years in the NFL, Dick LeBeau suddenly woke up and forgot how to coach defense. Either that, or LeBeau got to the point where his scheming and play calling could only make up for too much age, too much and too many injuries inexperience mixed together.
- Draw your own conclusions, but Steel Curtain Rising opts for the later.
Yes, the Steelers defense took a step back in 2013, a big one. But losing Larry Foote caused far more disruption than the average fan can fathom. Pulling Troy Polamalu from his strong safety position shifted a lot of responsibility to an aging Ryan Clark and a green Shamarko Thomas. Shifting out Casey Hampton for Steve McLendon didn’t provide the boost that many fans felt it would. That was a difficult hand that Dick LeBeau was dealt. But LeBeau was and hopefully will remain part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Finally, there is Mike Tomlin. It’s unknown how much influence Tomlin had in the roster/salary cap choices that left depth so thin that he was forced to shift his number 3 tight end, Kelvin Beachum, to center 8 plays into season (sorry, we told you losing Doug Legursky was a mistake). It’s also hard to know how much responsibility that Tomlin held for the decision to cut lose and recall so many players (see Will Allen, Stevenson Sylvester, and Jonathan Dwyer). These issues are important, as they impacted greatly in the 0-4 start. As was perhaps the decision to arrive in London late and risk jet lag, for which Tomlin was fully responsible.
Tomlin responded to that with the same kind of talk that coaches always pull out in those situations.
- It’s what is said when the cameras are off that is important. Tomlin spoke, and his team clearly listened.
Then, after the New England disaster, Tomlin vowed consequences for anyone who wasn’t making an effort. But he made no changes, because his review found no lack of effort. That’s the sign of a supremely self-confident coach who doesn’t feel the need to make change for change sake after the worst defensive effort in team history. Instead, Tomlin took responsibility for it all — going so far as to throw himself on a grenade with Kevin Colbert’s drafting record was questioned — rolled up his sleeves, and continued coaching.
The Steelers went 6-2 after that, and as Art Rooney II has said, they were playing their best ball at the end. Grade: B
An offensive line loses its best player, its most experienced player, and its signal caller. 8 plays into the season. Shortly after that it’s clear that it’s all important left tackle is in over his head. So another change needs to be made. This is of course what happened to the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.
During all of the ensuring chaos, there were two constants, to players who had a calming influence, two players who were always part of the solution and never part of the problem. Those two players are Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. Foster continued his steady play. DeCastro began developing into a very good guard. And for that and for their consistency, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers 2013 season.