Mike Tomlin opened training camp declaring that he expected more from his second year veterans, noting that NFL player’s reveal their true mettle during their sophomore seasons.
The same holds true of second year coaches and their teams.
Bill Cowher’s 1993 campaign clarified that 1992 was not a fluke, but Steelers fans also learned that over-confidence could be a Cowher-coached team’s Achilles heel.
The Steelers kick off in less than XX hours against the Houston Texas, embarking on a 17 week campaign that will take them through the NFL’s toughest schedule. Regardless of their ultimate won-loss record, this team is going to reveal of answers to questions left unanswered in 2007.
Can the Steelers Close?
The most disquieting trait of the 2007 Steelers was its tendency to give up games in the final moments.
Tomlin deserves judgment on his own merits, but thoughts of “that (almost) never happened under Bill Cowher” were unavoidable. How many times did we hear The Chin declare: “There’s a fine line between winning and losing… It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win.”
Their 10-6 record notwithstanding, the 2007 Steelers too often found ways to lose.
The exact cause of these late game let downs is unknown, but candidates are multifold:
- Ryan Clark’s absence was far more acute than anyone anticipated
- Tory Polamalu was out or otherwise not himself for most of the year
- The pass rush disappeared over the course of the season
- The offense lacked the ability to play “attrition football.”
- Self-destruction on special teams
Another, seldom discussed, suggested cause for the Steelers late game woes goes right to the heart of the working relationship between Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau. Both men gush with mutual admiration for the other, but the defense started so strong, then wanned as the year progressed. Was it the injuries, or were teams making adjustments to the Steeler defense, and if so, why couldn’t Lebeau and Tomlin counter? Suffice to say, it was impossible to watch opposing offenses march down the field time after time without at least wondering if the head coach and defensive coordinator were on the same page.
Ryan Clark is back and Tory Polamalu is on the mend. Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons look to inject new life into the Steelers pass rush. The additions of Mewelde Moore and Rasheed Mendenhall should boost the Steelers ability to kill the clock.
It all comes down to this: Good teams win close games. That may be cliché, but clichés become clichés because they are true.
Can Ben Avoid a Beating?
For all but three seasons of his tenure, the offensive line was a team strength under Bill Cowher. So it’s easy to point to the beating Ben took last year and say, “You see, new head coach, new offensive line coach, new center, and look what happens….”
Alas, the line gave up more sacks in 2006 than it did in 2007. So we’d better say that the line was one of Cowher’s strength during all but four of his seasons.
This year Justin Hardwig replaces Sean Mahan, who was shipped back to Tampa. Marvel Smith’s back is better. Willie Colon has year under his belt as starter, and while Alan Fanaca is in New York, the word is that Chris Kemoeatu brings a nasty edge to his game.
Enough players have come forward saying that “Alan was great, but you know, its hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” for Steel Curtain Rising to admit that we perhaps criticized the “well, Larry Zierlein was installing a new blocking system” excuse/explanation too harshly. Fine.
Ditto Mike Tomlin’s argument that pass protection involves more than just the line. Ben and Santonio Holmes did seem to be developing a rapport for audible in the preseason. Excellent.
Healthier players. Comfort with a new system and new leaders. Better coordination between the QB, his backs and receivers. Fantastic.
All of it sounds so nice.
But results are what matter.
The bottom line is, Ben gets better protection, 2008 can be a special season. However, another 40 + sack season for Ben could have serious consequences that extend far beyond the season finale against Cleveland.
Special teams were appalling in 2007. Some critics have argued that the Steelers special teams, statistically speaking, actually improved from 2006 to 2007.
Football is about imposing your will, and establishing momentum. Returns for touchdowns kill momentum. You can keep your opponents return averages down all you want. Averages are irrelevant if you consistently 50 yard returns in the fourth quarter with a leads to protect, you’re still self-destructing on special teams.
Steel Curtain Rising has spoken often enough about this issue in the past. Tomlin determined that the 2007 unit failed for want of special teams aces. That appears to be changing. If special teams continue to fail in 2008, Tomlin must be ready to take the unusual step of firing Bob Ligashesky in mid-season.
The 2008 campaign will undoubtedly teach us more about Mike Tomlin and the men he leads. He knows his players, and they know him. But regardless of what other lessons present themselves, the Steelers must protect the quarterback, improve on special teams, and act with killer instinct when things get close for good things to happen in 2008.