Of the many things that characterized the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl Championship run, one was offensive inconsistency tied to a chronic inability to run the ball well, and a second was an uncanny ability to step it up when the game was on the line.
The Steelers gave every indication during last Thursday night’s victory that they’re more than ready to pick up where they left off and in they've process left us a couple of lessons.
2008 Steelers vs. 2009 Steelers, a First Look
Hours after Super Bowl XLIII Mike Tomlin declared the 2009 Steelers to be a new team. That is a great way to focus the players, and its also true, particularly in the era of free agency.
Of the four losses the 2008 Steelers suffered, only two can be said to be cases where Pittsburgh got beaten. Give all the credit to Indy and New York for their victories, but the Steelers basically beat themselves in both those contests.
Not so against the Eagles, and less so against Tennessee. Both of these teams manhandled the Steelers. The Steelers certainly made their share of mistakes against Tennessee last December, but the Titans sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, picked him off twice, forced five fumbles, and otherwise dominated in their 31-14 victory.
Measured by that standard, the Steelers 13-10 overtime victory represents a resounding improvement.
Victory against a probable playoff contender is always cause for celebration, but the Steelers nonetheless have some concerns.
What Ails the Running Game?
Watching games on tape delay when you already know the outcome yields few benefits, but one is that you know what to look for. When I read Gene Collier’s column on the Steelers running game, the first thing that popped into my mind was “Oh boy, the offensive line… here we go again.”
- But Objectively you cannot pin the Steelers 1.6 rushing average on the line.
Its tempting, when all three rushers averaged 1.533 yards per carry. The Titans certainly got good penetration behind the line of scrimmage on plenty of plays, and cut Willie Parker off at the pass before he could get to the outside at other times.
But there were also times when the line did create day light, but Parker seemed tentative, and unable to hit those holes.
Rasshard Mendenhall did not look much better, but I will give the young guy a plug. Colliding with quarterback on your first carry of the season is as boneheaded as you can get, but...
- After bumping into Ben, Mendenhall muscled through a would-be tackler and turned a certain 3 yard loss into a one yard gain.
Clearly you expect more from a number one pick, and Steelers Nation should be concerned that he is not delivering more, but Mendenhall’s reaction revealed good instincts, strong legs, and some heart. Give him that.
In Defense of the Offensive Line…?
Ben Roethlisberger got sacked 4 times and knocked down quite a few others. That works out to 64 for a season….
Still, the line’s protection was good, save for the times when Tennessee came with the house.
During the 2007 season apologists for the offensive line argued that Willie Parker was the NFL leading rusher, so the line couldn’t be nearly as bad as Ben’s sack total. Could word for this season be that since pass protection has improved, the cause for the anemic does not lay with the offensive line?
Week one is way, way too early for such a conclusion, but it will be interesting to see if the argument comes full circle in 2009.
Steelers Defense, Sans Polamalu
In one half, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu put on one-man clinic showing why he is perhaps the Steelers greatest playmaker on defense since Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. In 1990, Steelers Digest ran a cover with Rod Woodson dressed in a Superman costume. But against the Titans, Troy Polamalu offered evidence that he simply may not be human.
Then he promptly got hurt.
Fortunately it does not look to be a serious injury, and the Steelers successfully closed out the second half without him. The Steelers will certainly miss Troy Polamalu.
Special Teams Boost?
Preseason special teams standout Stefan Logan proved that he can play in the NFL, averaging 29 yards on kickoff returns, and 11 yards on punt returns. Dan Sepulveda boomed off a couple of good punts, but he also benefited from a very, very generous bounce.
Close games often come down to field position.
Was special teams the difference maker here? Hard to tell after only seeing 2 and a half quarters.
Holding James Harrison, the Tradition Continues...
Has the NFL taken the Toalla Terrible’s faux announcement legalizing holding of James Harrison to heart? It seems so. What else explains Willie Colon horse collaring a Titan defender and riding him to the ground then getting flagged, only to have a Titan do the same to James Harrison only to find no flags in sight?
Week One’s Lesson
Ben Roethlisberger gave Steelers Nation a lot to be proud of. For all of the garbage about Ben “not being able to carry a team” or “Ben is only a game manager” he stepped into the breach and delivered, completing 14 straight passes at one point and delivered his 20th fourth quarter comeback.
So what does week one tell us?
- For the short term, the defense must continue to find ways to win without its number one playmaker.
- For the long term, a dramatic improvement in Pittsburgh's running game is an absolute necessity if the Steelers want to win consistently.
Those are two “ifs,” albeit the second bigger than the first. One thing is not an if.
Curtain's Call: The Steelers can count on Roethlisberger and his receivers. Steelers Nation knows that, but the reassurance offered by the Titians game is welcome all the same.