By L. Smalls
It has been said that coaches manage their schedule by quarters, or four games at a time. With that in mind it is time to take a look at the Steelers’ first quarter of the season and assess their 3-1 start.
QB – (Grade C)
The only reason the QB’s get a C instead of a D is because they went 3-1, although the record could be largely attributed to the stellar play of the defense and a solid running game. The position has produced a #31 ranking and some of the sorriest numbers any 3-1 team has ever seen. Only three TD’s (all against Tampa Bay) compared to 4 INT’s while averaging a measly 136 YPG is not the blueprint for winning championships in modern professional football. Roethlisberger cannot get back onto the field fast enough and Steeler fans need to hope they have seen the last of Charlie Batch in meaningful games this year.
RB – (Grade A)
Rashard Mendenhall picked up the offensive slack and ran with power and speed to compensate for the lack of a downfield passing attack. Mendenhall’s spin moves and nifty cuts are quickly becoming a sight that keeps the Steeler Nation gasping and high fiving their fellow Black and Gold clad brethren on game day. The second leading rusher in the NFL has raised his production even while opponents focused on stopping the running game. Mendenhall is on pace for a season of 1,600 yards and 16 TD’s but that pace could increase with the return of Roethlisberger and the threat of a passing attack.
Redman and Moore have contributed little on the ground and not much more through the air but all three of the backs have done a good job of protecting the ball (zero fumbles) and helping in pass protection (except Moore’s blown blitz pick up against the Ravens.) Mendenhall is carrying this group to the “A” grade like he’s been carrying the offense so far this year.
WR – (Grade C)
Most people try to blame the lack of productivity out of this group on the limited abilities of the quarterbacks who have been under center so far this season, but I think there’s more to the story than that. The shining star has been Mike Wallace. It’s exciting to think about what he will be capable of when Roethlisberger gets his feet under him and works out the timing issue that limited the duo a couple of big plays in the preseason. Once Ben gets the confidence to throw the ball downfield with all he’s got without worrying about overthrowing the speedster Steeler fans could be in store for multiple +40 yard TD’s this year. Wallace proved to be uncoverable on deep routes in the preseason and has carried that into the regular season.
Hines Ward and Heath Miller have earned their paychecks over the first 4 weeks by utilizing their blocking skills they have become known for while the running game carried the team. Randle El has been a pleasant surprise as the #3 and once Emmanual Sanders gets healthy and Ben returns this unit should help make the running game even more dominant over the last ¾ of the season.
OL – (Grade B)
Pass protection is again a problem for this unit. Through the first four games of the season they have surrendered a sack on 11% of their passing attempts (#30 in the league ahead of only Chicago and Arizona). Some of the blame is attributed to the quarterback play but it seems like for years apologists cry that Ben holds the ball too long and that is why the line gave up so many sacks. Batch holds the ball too but the line gets the majority of the blame.
The reason they grade out at a “B” is due to their ability to grind out the 5th best rushing attack without the threat of a passing game to keep defenses honest. Say what you will about Flozell Adams lacking discipline and getting called for too many penalties for someone of his stature, his presence has undoubtedly helped the running game in Pittsburgh. Couple that with the outstanding play of rookie Maurkice Pouncy and surprising play of Doug Legursky and the Steelers have more than Big Ben’s return to the field to be excited about starting the second quarter of the season.
DL – (Grade A)
If Steelers’ defensive linemen only have 3 sacks so far this year so you might wonder about the grade of “A” for the unit but don’t get confused by the stat sheet. These guys know what they’re doing and a huge reason that the defense as a whole has 11 sacks is due to the three guys up front. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton continue to make plays that simply don’t directly show up on the stat sheet. They tie up multiple blockers on pass plays which frees up the linebackers to make the sacks and on running plays they play with a steady consistency that is required for any 3-4 defense to be great.
Brett Keisel has been playing in the shadow of his linemates for years but he is leading the unit in tackles, sacks (tie) and even interceptions returned for TD’s. The Steelers could not have asked for better bench play from veteran Chris Hoke and young phenom Ziggy Hood. Their contributions helped sustain the defense when Hampton went down with a hamstring injury and although Hoke is currently mending a sprained knee himself, this unit has shown depth and ability that the team needs to maintain in order to get to where they want to be later in the season.
LB – (Grade A)
The most dynamic linebacking corps in the league once again resides in Steel Town. James Harrison is as ferocious as ever with no signs of slowing down. Any questions regarding that should be directed to Vince Young after Harrison slammed VY to the turf like he tried to steal his lunch money. Lamaar Woodley continues to impress in this contract year and is on pace for a return trip to Hawaii with more than one of his linebacker mates.
That third member of the squad destined for Honolulu is Lawrence Timmons. He leads the league in tackles and flies to the ball in ways not seen in Pittsburgh since Jack Lambert was racking up double digit tackles and covering backs and tight ends like a safety. Timmons hits with Lambert’s ferocity and is turning into the player the Steelers envisioned when they made him their #1 pick just 3 short years ago.
Sending three Steeler linebackers to the Pro Bowl may seem like a stretch but would it be possible to see all four there? Whatever James Farrior has lost in speed he makes up for in intuition and experience. He won’t make as many highlight reel plays as the others but anyone who watches the games can see him execute his responsibilities like the consistent veteran he is. Adding depth to this unit are Larry Foote and Jason Worlids. Foote offers a short bridge to the future between a time after Farrior retires and Worlids is ready to step in but the immediate future for this unit is looking good, as usual.
DB – (Grade B)
The Steelers are surrendering a respectable 226 YPG so far this season and the secondary boasts 4 INT’s but there have been individual breakdowns that caused the unit to grade out at a “B”. Having a healthy Troy Polamalu back on the field has been the key to the defensive success the Steelers have enjoyed thus far. Along with Timmons, he is constantly around the ball and in the backfield. His diving interceptions and leaping tackles produce results and motivate teammates to raise the level of their play. Troy makes everyone around him better and keeping him healthy is critical for the Steelers’ hopes this year.
Resigning Ryan Clark in the offseason is looking like another solid move by the Steelers’ front office as he continues to be the intimidator in the secondary for Pittsburgh, separating receivers from intended passes with thunderous hits and excellent timing. If Ike Taylor could catch he’d probably be an All-Pro. His coverage skills are still there and he does have one pick this year but he could easily have four if not for his inability to catch.
Bryant McFadden has done a solid job so far and as he becomes more acclimated with the schemes and assignments he should continue to improve. His bite on T. J. Houshmandzadeh’s “out and up” move late in the fourth quarter allowed the Ravens to take the game from the Steelers in week 4. McFadden has got to play more disciplined than that for the Steelers to continue to have the success they have had with Polamalu’s free lancing so far this year. William Gay is playing the position he was born to play: nickel back. When blitzing or covering the third WR he has stepped up his play so far this year after a sub-par year in 2009 that led to B-Mac’s return.
Special Teams – (B)
The coverage units are dramatically improved and that was as important to this year’s team as establishing a solid running game. Having given up zero TD’s via return while getting one of their own has also helped turn last year’s Achilles heel into a possible strength. Antonio Brown has helped the kick return game but it may be time for changes on the punt return squad. The only thing that squad leads the league in is fair catches with Randle El doing little besides fair catching punts and providing ball security. While it is important to have someone back there who won’t turn the ball over the team needs to get more out of the punt return unit than 5.8 YPR and inserting one of the rookie WR’s over the bye week may be something Pittsburgh wants to consider. Daniel Sepulveda has done a masterful job while ranking in the top 5 in the league in punt average, net average and fair catches. His return to form is an unrecognized contributor to the Steelers defense being among the league leaders in points against.
Jeff Reed has got to get it together. After publicly complaining about not getting a new contract in the offseason he has done little to cause the Steelers to reconsider their decision. He is currently only 1-5 from 40+ yards out and his misses forced overtime against Atlanta and cost his team a shot at overtime against Atlanta.