Can we do it again?
Mike Tomlin may have banned the word “repeat” from the team’s vocabulary less than 24 hours after winning Super Bowl XLIII, but that is none the less the question occupying everyone’s mind in Steelers Nation.
Always difficult, repeating as Super Bowl Champions is much greater challenge in the free agency era.
The Steelers were decidedly not up to the task following Super Bowl XL.
- They had no depth to speak of behind Willie Parker.
- Ben Roethlisberger was coming of a near-death motorcycle accident with an emergency appendectomy thrown in for good measure.
- And the fans and the media spent much of the season focusing on whether Bill Cowher was soon to be in Carolina.
That was 2006.
This is 2009.
Not only do the Steelers return all but two starters, but their replacements seem more than capable, and the Steelers look to count on some contributions for this year’s rookie class.
They also return more than 20 holdovers from Super Bowl XL. These men remember the toll exacted by the “post-Super Bowl hangover” and have dedicated themselves to avoiding another one.
Nonetheless, if the Steelers are to repeat they must meet some distinct challenges.
Living on the Edge
The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers lived on the edge.
Playing the NFL’s toughest schedule in decades, they had to rally from behind in the fourth quarter FIVE times in the regular season. They did it again in Super Bowl XLIII.
- Any naysayer who would take this as a sign of weakness is sorely mistaken.
The Steelers ability to win the close ones is a sign of their strength.
Need proof? Look no further than the 2007 New England Patriots, who dominated for 18 games, but then could not pull out a close one in Super Bowl XLII.
I’ll take five cardiac arrest inducing wins in a 12-4 and that ends in a Super Bowl victory over 18-1 any day.
The Steelers do not play the NFL’s toughest schedule in 2009, but that may not matter. As defending Super Bowl Champions they will get their opponents best.
- Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola has pointed out that, almost to a team, opposing quarterbacks, rushers, and defenses had their best games of the 2006 season against the then defending Super Bowl Champions.
Complacency and over confidence does not seem like it will be an issue with Mike Tomlin at the helm, as it was sometimes under Bill Cowher (particularly early in his tenure.)
As the NFL Films narrator said of the Steelers Super Bowl XIV squad, “Great teams do not have to be great all of the time, just when they need to be.” The 2008 Steelers helped breath new life into that mantra.
Curtain’s Call: To repeat in 2009 the Steelers are going need to be great more consistently, because any opponent that smells blood is going to relish the chance to KO the defending Super Bowl Champion.
The Offensive Line, the Running Game, Protecting Ben, et. al.
How many times has Steel Curtain Rising written about the offensive line? Too many to count.
Much of the Steelers inconsistency on offense in 2008 can be traced to the line, and its inability to open regular holes for Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore. And while Ben’s style of play does cause him to take more sacks, the line’s pass protection frequently left a lot to desire.
Still, this line was good enough to win the Super Bowl with. It improved in 2008 and continued improvement will follow.
But there is one feat that the Steelers will be unlikely to repeat in 2009. Last year the Steelers rebuilt the offensive line twice. Once in training camp, and then immediately after the Baltimore and Jacksonville games.
Having Max Starks, one of your highest paid players, sitting on the bench as your number one back helped.
Larry Zierlein has no such rabbits to pull out of his hat this time around.
Curtain’s Call: To repeat in 2009 the line must continue to improve, and it must stay healthy.
Defending the Nation
The Steelers finished the 2007 season as the NFL’s number on defense. But their weak finish had all the bang of a wet firecracker going off inside a cream puff.
A year ago critics (including this site) looked at that finish and asked "has the Steel Curtain gone soft?"
The Steelers defense came very, very close last year to becoming the first defense since the 1990 Philadelphia Eagles to lead the league in Total Defense, Pass Defense, and Run Defense.
This year the question is, can this defense actually improve?
Sure they’ve lost Larry Foote and Bryan McFadden, but Lawrence Timmons was pushing Foote for playing time, and William Gay alternating with McFadden.
The all ready mature defensive line is a year older, but there is no reason to expect a sharp drop off, and Ziggy Hood should be able to rotate in to give the starters a breathing spell.
A year ago offensive coordinators were worrying how to stop James Harrison. During the playoffs LaMarr Woodley put them on notice that they’ll now have to watch out for him.
Troy Polamalu continued to train in Southern California during the off season, as he had done in 2008 when he had his best year ever.
Curtain’s Call: The Steelers defense can be more dominating.
The X Factor
As the name suggests, the X Factor is the unknown, intangibles, and luck. Sometimes the ball bounced the Steelers way in 2008, other times it did not (all of the non-holding penalties on James Harrison, the 13-1 penalty game against San Diego.)
Much of the X-Factor is out of the team’s control. God know one serious injury to any of a half a dozen players could wreak havoc with the team’s fortunes.
One area that the Steelers do control where they can make a difference is special teams.
The coverage units had been a horrendous liability in 2007. They improved dramatically in 2008. The same could not be said of the return game.
What was scarier than seeing short-yardage specialist Gary Russell returning kicks in 2008? Let’s start with the fact that he was probably the best guy they had to do it.
If Dan Sepulveda’s preseason performance is any indication, the punting unit should be giving the defense significantly longer fields to work with.
As for the kick return unit? Well, if the return magic that Stefan Logan showed in preseason is no mirage, then Steelers fans could be in for something special.
Limited Window of Opportunity?
The saying that NFL teams in the free agency have a “limited window of opportunity” to make a serious run is often exaggerated, but also has a lot of truth to it.
The Steelers do have a good mix of youth and veterans, if one that leans a little toward mature, particularly on the defensive line.
Management has done an excellent job getting key veterans signed, but this could be the final year for Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, Jeff Reed, and Ryan Clark.
Likewise, the NFL is heading into the final two years of its collective bargaining agreement and the prospects of an uncapped year and a lockout-strike loom. While one year in an uncapped system might actually benefit the Steelers, after that it is anyone’s guess.
- The Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder’s would like nothing more than to do away with the revenue sharing that gives mid-market teams like the Steelers the chance to compete.
They might not get their way, but they make no secret of their desire to make the NFL’s business model more like Major League Baseball’s.
The time is now.
Management knows it, hence their decision to keep proven depth (Nick Eason) over promising potential (Sonny Harris.)
The road to Lombardi Number 7 is long and difficult…
Curtain’s Call:…But Steel Curtain Rising likes our chances!