Final Comment on Larry Foote and Gary Russell

There’s been plenty of talk about Larry Foote and Gary Russell on this site, but there are two more items of interest before putting the story to bed.

No Ill Will Toward Larry But….

It is hard to wish someone who has been such a reliable player and upstanding citizen ill will, and I certainly do not desire that for Larry Foote.

But his comments about feeling “limited” by the Steelers prior to Lawrence Timmons arrival leave a little bit of a bitter aftertaste.

Larry Foote is a good player, a very good player. But has he done anything to elevate himself to the elite level of linebacking that is at the core of the Steelers defensive identity?

James Harrison has. As has James Farrior. LaMarr Woodley is giving plenty of signs he’s headed in that direction too. Joey Porter was there, as were linebackers like Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd before them.

I dare say no.

Foote won two Super Bowls with Pittsburgh. He has now forced his way out of the only franchise to win six Super Bowls to sign with the only team to go 0-16.

He has certainly found a place with plenty of room to grow.

Give the man credit. He signed a one year deal with an eye toward proving himself and cashing in. He is putting his money where his mouth is.

Gary Russell Redux

Ed Bouchette made a very interesting comment in his recent chat. Someone asked him if Russell would still be with the team had the Steelers chosen to move Foote earlier.

Bouchette characerized the Steelers justification that Russell had to go to clear up cap room to resign Charlie Batch was a “smoke screen.”

In his previous chat Bouchette stuck by his reporting that Russell had been cut for cap reasons, but when pressed by Steel Curtain Rising, Bouchette admitted that he only “sort of” bought the explanation.

Rumors have abounded to explain the Steelers motive for letting Russell go. All are unsubstantiated so they will not be repeated here, but suffice to say, it looks like those who thought there was something else to the story were probably correct.

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Steelers 2009 Draft Needs at Tight End, Running Back, Linebacker, and Quarterback

The Steelers primary needs heading into the 2009 draft are defensive line, offensive line, wide receiver and defensive back. There are of course four other positions, plus special teams.

The Steelers are obviously going to take someone who plays at least one of them. As with the primary need positions, the question is the same. Which takes priority?

The Steelers 2009 Draft Needs at Tight End

The Steelers are young at this position. Heath Miller is growing into one of the top tight ends in the game, and Matt Spaeth showed that he could be dangerous in the passing game. They also have Sean McHugh, who doubles at fullback.

Steeler’s Digest’s Bob Labriola has labeled drafting a back up tight end a luxury. His logic is sound, but a little short sighted.

Heath Miller will be a free agent next year, unless the league goes to an uncapped year, and then he’ll be a restricted free agent. While the Steelers can match any offer in that scenario, are they going pony up when Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones offers Heath Miller a five year 15 million dollar a year deal?

If Matt Spaeth is developing into a nice complement to the passing game, the knock on him is that he adds nothing as a blocker. And the Steelers need help with blockers.

Tight end should not be high on the Steelers list, but if they get a shot at a good one starting in middle rounds, they should feel free to take one. Especially if he’s a tight end who can smash people.

Running Back: Shouldn’t Have Been a 2009 Draft Need But….

If the Steelers once vaunted running game never really got unleashed in 2008, they still enter 2009 when one of the league’s top running back stables. Willie Parker will return, as will 2008’s number one pick Rashard Mendenhall. The unsung hero of the 2008 season, Mewelde Moore will be backing them up. And Cary Daivs, while no world beater, will also be there both as a runner and to split fullback duties with Sean McHugh.

Why pray tell, would the Steelers draft a running back? Well, they shouldn’t. At least not in the early rounds.

After that drafting a running back makes more sense.

Here’s why.

Willie Parker is aging and has been injured for parts of the last two years. Since he played so little in college he’s probably got more left in him than many other NFL backs who’ve logged a similar number of carries. But he’s also in the final year of his contract.

Rashard Mendenhall showed some flashes before he got hurt in 2008. He really didn’t get enough carries to make an honest evaluation. And that’s the point. Mendenhall is still an unknown talent.

Mewelde Moore was the free agency steal of the 2008 off season. He’s a keeper.

Davis’ production has yet to match his apparent versatility. Its not that he’s done anything wrong, but that he really hasn’t done much. Why the Steelers kept him and let Gary Russell fall to Cincinnati remains a mystery.

Had the Steelers kept Russell and let Davis go, Steel Curtain Rising would be content to say that the Steelers could safely ignore running back in this draft.

Now we will not think them foolish if they draft for depth in mid-rounds. This is especially true if the find a running back who has the skill and speed to return kicks. (Or, heaven forbid, a true fullback….)

The Steelers (Almost) Lack of Need at Linebacker in the 2009 Draft

The Steelers had the NFL’s best linebacking corps in 2008 and should very well have the best in again 2009. They had James Harrison, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, two other Pro Bowl caliber starters, plus Larry Foote, plus Pro Bowler in waiting Lawrence Timmons. They also have a good mix of experienced and maturing talent behind them.

  • What motive could they possibly have for drafting a linebacker?

Because the make up of their linebacking corps. could well change in short order after the draft.

The Steelers have virtually no room to operate under the salary cap. They already had to cut Gary Russell for cap reasons and renegotiate Ike Taylor’s contract. If they need to cut more salary, Larry Foote’s time with the team is likely at an end.

Timmons would more than make up for the loss of Foote, but it would also thin out their depth at inside linebacker quite a bit.

But the potential they have at this position is sufficient, that they should probably relegate any linebacker pick ups until late rounds. If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know they can keep Foote, then they can ignore linebacker in this draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Envy of the League at Quarterback

That the Steelers came so close to signing both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich actually speaks volumes about how much of an asset this team is. During 2008 there were some teams that scrambled to find one man who was competent to stand under center. The Steelers were on the verge opening camp in Latrobe with three of them on their roster.

And while he played little, Dennis Dixon is showing signs that he will develop into the back up that the Steelers envisioned him being when they took him in the 5th round last year.

The Steelers will probably bring a fourth arm to camp, but give the team’s needs else where, it would be foolish to use a draft pick on a quarterback.

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Watch Tower: Mixed Interpretations of Gary Russell’s Departure

It took two days, but both Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette weighed in on the Steelers surprising decision to cut Gary Russell.

  • Their interpretations are slightly different.

Scott Brown is taking Kevin Colbert at his word when he says that the Steelers cut Gary Russell was cut for salary cap reasons. He even goes as far as to quote Colbert’s remarks from the pre-draft press conference:

“There could be further deletions as we move forward, depending on how our cap situation evolves.”

In a separate piece, Brown shares in the speculation that Steel Curtain Rising voiced ealier this week, namely that if the Steelers are indeed so hard up for cap space that they had to cut Gary Russell, that they’ll need to make cuts to get their draft picks.

A Slightly Different from Ed Bouchette View, Sort Of

Ed Bouchette also seemed to back Colbert’s explanation. In addition to writing about it, he accepted no less than three questions about Gary Russell’s departure from the Steelers in his on-line chat.

Each time he reiterated Colbert’s point about cutting Russell for salary cap reasons.

But Steel Curtain Rising directly questioned him as to whether or not he bought Colbert’s rational. This was his response:

Davis can do more than Russell, and I sort of buy the cap room thing. I don’t believe that Gary did anything wrong, that’s what you mean.
[Emphasis added.]

Well, what does “sort of” mean? In responding to another question, Bouchette again stated that he didn’t think Russell had done anything to anger the Steelers. But the “sort of” comment does at least suggest that he smells a hint of something else to the story.

All well and good. But before we pat ourselves on the back too hard for Steel Curtain Rising’s ace media analysis skills, an honest reading of Kevin Colbert’s complete answer indicates that the move was salary cap related.

Loose Ends

Scott Brown reported an interesting fact about the salary cap. During the off season it is only the top 51 salaries that count against the cap. Never knew that before. Not a terribly useful piece of information, but interesting nonetheless.

Bouchette’s comments about Gary Russell’s departure were slightly dismissive, saying that Russell was not another Franco Harris nor another Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala.

No real argument there, but this was slightly surprising as Bouchette compared Russell to Barry Foster during 2007 training camp, and he sung Russell’s praises at various times during the 2008 off season.

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Hines Ward, Gary Russell Make News in Steelers 2009 OTA’s

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are not set to have their annual pre-draft conference until this afternoon, but the Steelers 2009 OTA’s are already yield some news.

Is Hines Ward Intent on Staying in Put in Pittsburgh?

Hines Ward is entering the final year of his contract, and is taking a very different attiude this time around. The last time he faced this situation, in 2005, he held out for the first half of training camp. Don’t expect a similar performance this time.

When asked about this contract, he told the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette this:

The contract, we’re just going to play and whatever happens happens. I want to be a Steeler . . . I don’t want to put on another uniform. I’m late in the game now to worry about it. You look at all the previous players who went on and played for other places. I learned a lot from Jerome [Bettis], what he did. I want to go down in Steelers history to be one of the better wideouts to wear the black and gold.

Ward certainly does not sound like a man who has plans to go anywhere.

Last week, Steel Curtain Rising pointed out a comment made by Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest about Ward’s possible retirement to suggest that perhaps the Steelers Digest editor had information that either the Steelers or Ward himself, were contemplating retirement for number 86 at the conclusion of 2009.

Colbert [sort of] Explains Release of Gary Russell

Kevin Colbert also stated that Gary Russell was waived in order to make salary cap room for Charlie Batch…. Ok.

Kevin Colbert certainly knows the Steelers salary cap numbers better than Steel Curtain Rising does, but his explanation does not make sense.

  • If the Steelers needed cap space then why cut Gary Russell, who was seeing his role expanded, and not Cary Davis, who had seen his role retrenched?
  • If the Steelers are so desperate for cap space that they need to cut second year players, then who else is slated for the copping block when it comes time to sign the draft picks?

If the Steelers do do something like cut Larry Foote to free up cap space, then you’ll know Colbert is shooting straight. But if the Steelers don’t make major salary-cap related moves after the draft, that’s a pretty strong indicator that there were other factors motivating the team’s decision to part ways with Gary Russell.

 

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Steelers Cut Gary Russell

In what amounts to a minor shock, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is announcing that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Gary Russell.

Gary Russell joined the Steelers as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2007. During training camp he drew comparisons to Barry Foster for his low center of gravity and power rushing style, but played sparingly during the 2007 regular season.

After carrying seven times in 2007, he saw his role increased in 2008, which is why this move is so surprising.

Why Cut Gary Russell Instead of Cary Davis?

Why would the Steelers cut Gary Russell? Taken at face value Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s decision to cut Gary Russell is perplexing.

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Russell’s overall numbers are not that impressive, 28 carries for 77 yards, which amounts to a 2.8 average. But during mid-season Russell appeared to have carved out a niche for himself as a short yardage specialist, and a kick returner.

  • Gary Russell also flashed during the Jacksonville game that he was capable of doing damage in the open field.

By mid-season Russell established himself as the team’s “go to back” in goal line and short yardage situations, and did quite well for himself. In fact, during November, Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain argued that Russell’s role with the rushing offense should have been expanded even more (and Steel Curtain Rising concurred.) Gary Russell scored three touchdowns in the regular season, and scored the first and only rushing touchdown for the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.

Russell was not the Steelers only undrafted rookie free agent running back pick up in 2007. He joined the team with Cary Davis, who eventually replaced starting full back Dan Krieder.

That was 2007. In 2008, when the Steelers found themselves without Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, it was Cary Davis who got the nod at running back. But as the season progressed, Cary Davis found himself phased out in favor of Sean McHugh, while Russell got the work in short yardage.

Possible Explanations for Steelers Cutting Gary Russell

As Ed Bouchette reported, the Steelers gave no reasons to explain Russell’s release. That leaves Steelers Nation wondering.

Did they simply feel they were set with Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker back to health and Mewelde Moore behind them? As an undrafted free agent, Russell’s salary almost certainly was not an issue, and if so why him and not Davis?

Could it be because of off the field issues – disciplinary issues kept Russell from playing more than two years at the college level? In all fairness to Russell, Steel Curtain Rising is not suggesting off the field issues were the Steelers motive, we have no information to that effect, we’re merely asking the question.

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Watch Tower: 2008 AFC Championship Varium

Kudos to Gary Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for keeping his head about him to point out one very obvious coaching blunder by the Steelers that got lost in the glow of victory. In his Two Minute Drill column, Dulac called out Bruce Arians for calling the pass play on third and 1 after a 7 yard run by Willie Parker.

In his weekly chat Ed Bouchette indicated that the play was designed for Hines Ward, and well, Nate Washington didn’t run it like Ward would have. Obviously they did not convert.

This play followed the Steelers 21 yard punt, which, with the help of Ike Taylor’s pass interference call, gave Baltimore 7. Give Gary Russell a shot at pounding out one yard and you can take couple of three minutes off of the clock…. Good pick up Gary.

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag, Sort of

In the same article, Dulac committed a minor faux pax.

One of the most interesting things about keeping an eye on the media is trying to figure out what they know by can’t or don’t say.

Members of the Pittsburgh media watch every team practice, but they’re barred by agreement from revealing what they see. Hence, you’ll never see, “you know, don’t expect much of so-and-so this week because he’s had a really crappy week of practice.”

Commenting on Limas Sweed’s drop of a sure touchdown at the end of the first half against the Ravens, Dulac said: “Practice-watchers will record just another daily drop for the rookie.” In his weekly chat, Ed Bouchette confirmed the observation.

Given that that was Sweed’s second drop in as many playoff games, it’s not as if they’re giving away a big secret. One can imagine that both men’s press credentials are still secure.

Don’t Look Now But…

Literally, this means you cannot look now because you won’t find it. But one of the PG’s early articles on the game was chalked full of errors.

Mike Tomlin was quoted with out any attribution, just the quote and no indication of who it was from. That was after the writer asserted that Tomlin was the first coach to take a team to the Super Bowl in his sophomore season….

…a distinction which of course belongs to Joe Gibbs, who accomplished the feat in the strike shortened season of 1982.

These mistakes, however, were corrected by mid-day.

Regular readers of this site know very well that Steel Curtain Rising has little room to criticize others for typos and other types of syntax mistakes, but then again, we’re not getting paid, nor do we have an editor. (Well, the women in my life sometimes point stuff out. Help for which I am grateful….)

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Can Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers Knock Off a Contender?

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has done a lot of things right since he was hired. Yet three quarters into his sophomore season, something still eludes him.

He’s said the right things:

  • “I am a football fundamentalist”
  • “I believe in winning by establishing the run and stopping the run”

He made the right moves from the get go:

  • He revealed his self-assuredness, by taking charge of the team, without attempting to remake it in his image.
  • Tomlin oversaw the successful rehabilitation of Ike Taylor
  • He negotiated the Alan Fanaca minefield with the skill of a seasoned pro

When it came time to stop talking and start playing, Tomlin delivered.

  • The Steelers started 2007 3-0
  • The days of double digit wins returned to Pittsburgh
  • The Steelers reclaimed the AFC North title

The Steelers weak finish and early playoff exit in 2007 closed Tomlin’s rookie season on a down note. But, eleven games into the 2008 campaign, Tomlin has shown signs of correcting much of what ailed the Steelers in 2007.

  • Special teams, while not a team strength, have not been a glaring weakness
  • Several times the Steelers have shown the ability to win, rather than lose games in the final minutes
  • Similarly, unlike 2007, the 2008 Steelers has thus far avoided the so called “trap” games

The Elusive Victory…

With all of that, there is something that Mike Tomlin has still failed to do.

Mike Tomlin has 18 wins to on his professional resume, and that justifies praise.

Yet not one of those wins comes against a contender.

That’s right. After 28 games with Mike Tomlin at the helm, the Pittsburgh Steelers have failed to defeat a contender. Contender is a subjective term. We’ll simply define that as a team that has a realistic chance of making the Super Bowl.

  • Tomlin has won big games, Seattle in 2007, the 75th Anniversary game…
  • but the Steelers performance against New England and Jacksonville last year was woefully inadequate

2008 has brought much the same. The victories against the Ravens, Jaguars, and Redskins were big. And while the Ravens still might establish themselves as “contenders,” the Steelers came up short against the Giants and Colts, the two true heavyweights that they’ve faced.

  • Fortunately, Tomlin’s chance to change all of that has arrived.

First comes long time nemesis New England on the road, then the newly resurgent Dallas back at Heinz field, followed by the conference leading Tennessee Titans and division rival Baltimore Ravens on the road.

The Steelers faded down the stretch in 2007, and while this team surely seems tougher and stronger, they’ve played with enough inconsistency to leave room for a “reasonable doubt” in Steelers Nation’s collective mindset.

There are two things that Mike Tomlin must see to if they are to erase that doubt.

Keep the Pedal to the Metal on Defense

The Steelers defense started the 2007 strong, and although they managed to finish with the number one ranking, no one was really fooled into thinking that the Steelers really had the best defense going into the 2007 playoffs.

Unlike last year, the Steelers enter their critical late-season stretch with Tory Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Aaron Smith. Add the fact that LaMarr Woodley replaces Clark Haggins, and Steelers fans have a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

But turning transforming that hope into reality depends on execution. The Steelers defense has certainly executed this year, but to prevail against the Patriots, Cowboys, Titans, and Ravens the Steelers defense cannot afford to let any opportunity slip through their fingers.

To understand what this means, look no further than the Colts game where both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu lost interceptions that easily could have provided a 14 point swing in the Steelers favor.

The Steelers defense cannot afford to leave any such opportunities on the field.

Establish the Run

The Steelers are in route to their worst rushing season since the 2003 disaster. Yes, Willie Parker has been hurt, and Rashard Mendenhall has been out since week four.

But Mike Tomlin relentlessly preaches that injuries are no excuse, and the simple fact means that Steelers ground game is not up to snuff.

Does Bruce Arian’s lack a commitment to the run? That’s been suggested here and elsewhere. Does he have the personnel up front to establish the run? The team’s failure to convert 4th and one’s against the Colts and Chargers can be traced directly to losing control of the line of scrimmage.

One question that is not up question, is even if Parker is limited (and missing a guy who can go the distance on any down is no small matter) in Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell, the Steelers have two reliable running backs, with Carey Davis and Najeh Davenport also capable of contributing.

As Bob Labriola of the Steelers Digest has mentioned, calling a few more running games at strategic moments of the game can benefit the team, even if those runs to not yield additional yards.

  • Running the ball will not only keep the defense off balance, but it reduces the punishment that Ben Roethlisberger takes.

Ideally the Steelers can and will establish the ground game. But even if the running game does not come to resemble the hey days of Franco, Foster, and Bettis, a commitment to running the ball bodes will for the offense.

Tomlin Has the Tools, Now He Needs To Transfrom the Steelers Into Contenders

Mike Tomlin is about to embark on the toughest stretch of games of his tenure as Steelers head coach. He’s given every indication that he has the coaching ability. And he has to tools at his disposal.

Now is the time for him to field a finished product.

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Two Must Reads on the 2008 Steelers Running Game

The blogsphere has supplied Steelers Nation with two must reads on the Steelers running game. Yours truly had wanted to write about that this week, but time did not allow.

But the site Behind the Steel Curtain has two pieces that should both probably be required reading for the Steelers coaching staff.

“Blitzburgh” has done us the favor of doing a painstaking analysis of the Steelers running tendencies on third and short. I will not steal the man’s thunder, but I will tell you that anyone looking to build a case that Bruce Arians hasn’t committed to running the ball should start here.

The second article is by Neal Coolong, formerly of “On the Black Side.” In “Get Gary the Ball, He’s Earned It” Neal takes makes that argument that it is time for the Steelers to see what Gary Russell can do.

If you haven’t come across those articles yet, go check them out now.

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2008 Steelers Offense Reaches Crossroads in Chargers Victory

Despite dominating in almost every statistical category the Steelers were forced to rely on another last minute field goal by Jeff Reed to eek out 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Whether you see the Chargers game from the half-empty or half-full perspective, there is no mistaking that ten games into the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is at a crossroads.

The game’s bizarre finish dominated cyberspace this morning, but the bigger story is the uncanny paradox that was the Steelers offense last Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger returned to practice this week, and it showed.

  • One can only look at the 13 penalties and wonder if the rest of his teammates joined him.

Plot these numbers of a map, and the zig zagging will make you dizzy:

  • A quarterback who threw for three hundred yards, and completed 75 of his passes…
  • A Pro Bowl half back returning to gain 115 yards on 25 carried, running on a wet field…
  • Two 100 yard receivers…
  • A defense that produced three turnovers…

…Yet the only points came off of Jeff Reed’s leg and James Harrison’s safety.

The Empty Half

Confronted with this dichotomy, the Pittsburgh press opted to embrace the negative.

Consider Mike Prisuta’s lead in the Tribune-Review to an article titled “Win Does Not Mask Steelers Problems:”

  • “The Steelers didn’t so much as beat the San Diego Chargers as they did survive them Sunday. And themselves.”

In the same vein, the Post-Gazette headlined Gene Collier’s column:

  • “The Steelers Barely Get it Done.”

There are real caution signs in the Charger’s game. Anytime your offense only manages nine points against an underachieving defense you have to be concerned.

The fact that penalties are suddenly a concern is alarming.

  • The Steeler’s failure to convert yet another fourth and goal at the one rightly bothers the faithful in Steelers Nation.

Mike Prisuta’s lead is on target in a certain sense. The Steelers themselves created much of the adversity that weathered on Sunday. But the way the Men of Steel responded offers hope.

Improvising, Adapting and Overcoming

Part of that [the game’s difficult circumstances] is our doing, and it’s discouraging. We’re not a finished product, but maybe we found something today in Gary Russell.” – Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin on the Chargers game

The failed 4th down conversion in the red zone provides the perfect example. Getting stuffed at the one, this is Steelers football mind you, is never pleasant, but it might have been the best thing that happened to them because the coaches responded by using Gary Russell in two other short yardage situations. Russell delivered in both cases, converting both of those opportunities.

Willie Parker is back to form, and Mewelde Moore impressed in his absence, but its good to see the Steelers coaches recognize that those two are not their only options.

Much was made about the fact that Roethlisberger “didn’t throw downfield” for a second straight game. That’s not quite true, as he did try to hit Santonio Holmes deep twice, and neither pass was on target.

So perhaps we’re right not to believe the coaches when they insist that the short passing game was only a function of “what was being given to us.” And no Iron City swigging Steelers fan wants to see the West Coast Offense make its home in Pittsburgh.

  • But Ben was better. He may not have thrown the deep ball well, but he made clutch throw after clutch throw, threading needle after needle.

This improved play allowed the Steelers to covert 50% of their third downs; going into the game were only converting 38.5% of their third downs.

Steelers Defense Stepping Up

Football is a game defined by situation. When you respond well, you win. When you don’t you lose.

Down 7 to 2 at as the first half was winding down, the San Diego Chargers were threatening to make it 14 two.

  • James Harrison had other ideas, intercepting a Philip Rivers pass and returning it 33 yards.

Given the ball at their own 43 with 1:23 left to go, Roethlisberger answered by completing 6 of 7 passes, the last of which put the Steelers into position to score with 0:11 seconds left.

The Steelers strong finish to the first half didn’t result in much of a momentum shift, as penalty after penalty sabotaged drive after drive in the second half.

  • This kind of football frustrates fans, but the men on the field maintained their poise.

The Chargers marched from their 18 to the Steelers four yard line. Drives like that can demoralize, but the defense dug in when San Diego reached the red zone. Larry Foote and James Harrison limited L.T. to two yards before Ike Taylor and Fernando Bryant broke up consecutive pass plays to force a field goal.

Once again, Ben responded as he did in the Baltimore and Jacksonville games. Starting at his own 13 he directed a 15 play drive that brought the Steelers to San Diego’s two to set up Jeff Reed’s game wining field goal.

Can the Steelers Offense Put It Together?

Throughout the 2008 season the Steelers offense has had a maddening Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde character to it. Just two weeks ago ESPN’s Football Outsiders did a story that could be summed up this way: Steelers have one of the best offenses inside the 20, but one of the worst outside the 20.

  • And there they were Sunday, wracking up 400 yards of total offense, zero no turnovers, yet with nary a touchdown to show for it.

One way or another, the San Diego game will be looked at as the week where the Steelers offense reached a fork in the road.

Mike Tomlin must ensure that 2008 Steelers offense moves in the right direction.

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What Ails the 2008 Steelers Offense? Bruce, Ben or Both?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are sitting on a 5-2 record, they’ve won all of their division games, not lost inside the AFC, overcome a rash of injuries, and they boast the league’s most relentless pass rush. And yet, they have a problem.

  • The Steelers offense is out of sync.

Sure, the team has put together some heroic drives to close late games, and that is an improvement. The Steelers are also dangerous inside the red zone….

…When they get there.

The offense lacks consistency. It hasn’t consistently established the run, it cannot protect its quarterback, and it is only converting 34.5% of its third downs and that by and large is the reason why the offense is ranked 24th.

  • So where does the source of the Steelers offensive woe lie? With Ben Roethlisberger or with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians?

Bruce Arians

For objectivity’s sake it’s important to say right at the get go the Steel Curtain Rising was suspect of Bruce Arians as soon as he was named offensive coordinator.

The Steelers identity is of smash mouth football team. A team that wins by dominating, by imposing its will.

  • Yet one of Arian’s first moves as offensive coordinator was to phase out the full back, in spite of the fact that the Steelers had the best blocking full back in the league.

While the Steelers offensive backfield isn’t the same without Willie Parker, one gets the feeling that Arian isn’t committed to establishing the run. Thus far, the team has almost 50/50 split between running plays and passing plays.

This would not be a problem if the team were converting third downs, but the Steelers are not doing that. Moreover, this run to pass ratio is resembles the run to pass ratio at this point in the ill-fated 2006 campaign, than the run to pass ratio after seven games in both the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Mewelde Moore has done everything the Steeler have asked of him. In his first game as a starter, he ripped off four runs that gained double digit yardage.

  • Nonetheless, Moore seems to disappear from the Steelers offensive game plan for entire quarters.

This makes no sense. The fact that the team has not used more Gary Russell also mystifies. Russell has taken advantage of the opportunities he’s been given as well as Moore has, but he has looked impressive at times.

Arian’s insists on three tight end formations, despite fact that the Steelers do not have a tight end troika suited for the power formations that were the staple of NFC East offenses in the heyday of Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs.

The test of any coach or coordinator is not the schemes he can dream up, but his ability to get the most of the players he’s given. Which brings us too…

Ben Roethlisberger

Unlike Bruce Arians, Steel Curtain Rising is big on Ben Roethlisberger. Ben is a franchise quarterback, and deserve to be revered up there with the Tom Brady’s and Petyon Mannings of the day.

  • Ben deserves the praise and poise he has shown under a relentless pass rush.

Al Michael’s observation that Ben should replace Robert Downey as the next Iron Man only errs in that the analogy might not be strong enough.

  • Nonetheless, Ben is not playing his best football.

His completion percentage is still around 60%, which is about where it was after seven games in the previous four seasons. But his touchdowns are down and his interceptions are up.

One of the things that Arians said he was going to do upon being named offensive coordinator was to turn Ben loose. This meant that he was not only going to allow Ben to make plays, but that he was going to bring Ben into the game planning process, and give him more freedom to freelance on the field.

The result was Ben’s best season ever, as the 2007 campaign should have obliterated any of that garbage “Ben is only a game manager.”

Too Much Freedom, at Least Sometimes…?

One has to wonder if Ben sometimes has too much freedom.

Six games into the 2007 season the Steeler went into Denver with the NFL’s number one rushing offense. The Broncos had one of the league’s worst rushing defenses. The Steelers went and called something like 21 passes in the fist half….

  • At the time Steel Curtain Rising berated Arians for that, comparing him to Joe Walton.

Later on that week word got out that those 21 passes had originally been run plays, changed to passes when Ben didn’t like the looks that he saw at the line of scrimmage.

  • Is something similar happening this year?

The Steelers went up early against the Bengals, and then struggled on offense for 2 quarters. Ben’s comments after the game are revealing:

“We killed ourselves in the first half; I called a bad game,” said Roethlisberger, who pitched a bad game as well until very late. “I told [offensive coordinator] Bruce [Arians], now I know what it feels like to do that. He told me I did. I should have just stuck to what I saw a lot of times rather than trying to force things. I really felt that we could have had 28, 30 points at halftime.”

There you have it “…I should have just stuck to what I saw a lot of times rather than trying to force things.” [emphasis added]

  • If Ben has a definable weakness, aside from perhaps trying show how tough he is by standing in the pocket for too long, its that he some times tries to do too much himself.

Roethlisberger is a stand up guy. He never used the motorcycle accident or the appendectomy as an excuse for his poor play in 2006. But he did admit that at times he felt he went too far in attempting to take games into his own hands.

The Steelers special teams let Jacksonville right back into the game after Pittsburgh drew blood on the opening drive, and Ben spent the rest of the half trying to force the ball throwing two interceptions that led to another 14 points for the Jaguars.

Sans Parker and Santoino Holmes, much the same happened last week against the Giants. As the Tribune Review’s John Harris observed:

Manning attacked the Steelers with a scalpel, taking what the defense gave him and picking his spots downfield. Roethlisberger hacked away at the Giants, looking for big plays even when there were none.

If Harris’ diagnosis is on target, then what is the solution?

  • There’s no easy answer, but the solution must come from both Arians and Roethlisberger.

Arians must commit to establishing the run and, regardless of whether Willie Parker truly is back at 100%, there should be no excuse for him not to with Mewelde Moore and Garry Russell there to help. And while it would be foolish to try to handcuff a quarterback of Roethlisberger’s talent, Bruce Arians and quaterback’s coach Ken Anderson needs to coach Ben toward making better decisions.

Bill Cowher used to like to say that a team finds its identity during the first 5 to 7 games of a season. If that is correct, then the Steelers 24th ranking offense is cause for concern.

  • Yet if you told that to Mike Tomlin, his answer would likely be, “You know, all of that sounds nice, but the fact is that we are still writing our own story.”

He’s right.

Let’s hope the Steelers offense begins writing a new chapter tonight against the Redskins.

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