It has been nearly a week since the Pittsburgh Steelers blew the lead in Oakland, yet it still looks as ugly as ever when watching it again. While we keep searching for the silver lining in the game on defense, it is difficult to find one, and consequently, the panic has definitely set in.
Enough time has been spent identifying the weaknesses of the Steelers after week three of this young season, yet not much attention has been awarded to discussing what changes and improvements need to occur to turn around the season and navigate it in the direction of the playoffs.
Former head coach Bill Cowher was notorious for his mantra, “There is a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL,” and his words are definitely applicable to the Steelers in 2012. If the team can just shift a few areas into their favor, they can resume their winning ways.
Here are some potential adjustments, improvements that we may see over the next several weeks.
A Boost to the Running Game
While I never thought I would say it, I am anxiously anticipating the return on running back Rashard Mendenhall. Over the years, I have been critical of Mendenhall for “dancing” and tip-toeing near the hole, yet after watching Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer this year, the production that Mendenhall provided, while not awe-inspiring, was significantly better. During my game film study, there have been instances in which holes have opened up for the backs; however, either their lack of vision or quickness impedes them from hitting it, resulting in no gain or a loss. Additionally, there have been too many outside running plays and draws called for Redman which have failed miserably. While I am not expecting Mendenhall to be Superman in his first game back, I do expect him to invigorate the running game. If this can happen, imagine the time of possession on offense. This will only benefit the struggling defense. And maybe it is time for more carriers for Baron Batch who ran hard against Oakland and looked much better than Redman or Dwyer.
The Return of Saunders
Mark Kaboly of the Tribune Review wrote about how the return of Weslye Saunders would help boost the running game, as Leonard Pope has been inconsistent. Yet another factor to consider is the additional receiving threat that he will provide to this offense. As an athletic tight end, Saunders will create matchup problems for defenses and give Ben Roethlisberger another weapon, making the Steelers offense even better.
Rainey Will Finally Settle In
While Chris Rainey has yet to make a big play in the regular season, it is just a matter of time. The rookie demonstrated several times in the preseason his explosiveness and ability to score from anywhere on the field. As he grows more comfortable in the offense and with the speed of the game, he will become a factor not only on offense, but also on special teams. The spark that his big plays could provide will be huge in swinging momentum for the Steelers as the season wears on.
The Offensive Line Will Improve
The longer this group plays together and grows comfortable with the scheme, they will get better. And while it is a long ways off, the return of David DeCastro will upgrade the guard play, especially in the pulling game. Also, overlooked last week was the effective pass protection. While it wasn’t perfect, Ben was not sacked until late in the game.
Polamalu Will Return
While not what he used to be, Troy Polamalu is light years better than what Ryan Mundy brings to the defense. And it is no secret the step that the defense takes back whenever Troy is out of the lineup. His return to the defense will help solidify a run defense that has struggled.
Dick LeBeau Doesn’t Have Blinders On
Check out LeBeau’s comments after the Raiders game: "Generally speaking, I usually say: \'You dumb ass, why did you call that defense?\' But we\'re not where we want to be. In this business you\'re never as good as you think you are…." While critics have piled on LeBeau after the loss to the Raiders, this is a Hall of Fame, two time Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator that is in charge here. If anything, LeBeau knows that his defense is playing below the line, and he will make the necessary adjustments to improve. The offense did not help the defense with the turnovers last week giving up a short field, and the same can be said about the return teams. It’s not like the defense has given up a ton of yards, they have just not made plays. If anybody can rectify this situation it is LeBeau. And if you don’t believe so, go back to 2005 when the Steelers gave up 38 points to the Bengals in a loss that took their record to 7-5. What happened after that game? The Steelers won seven straight, including the Super Bowl.
A Tweak to Timmons’ Game
If you have access to the first three games of the season, go back and watch Lawrence Timmons. What you will see is a supposedly “explosive” player who looks like he is going three-quarters speed. When he engages blockers or comes on a blitz, his momentum is immediately absorbed and stifled. Additionally, he appears a step behind the play, and when he is in position to make a play, he misses the tackle. I refuse to believe that Timmons is not an effective player because we have seen it in 2008, 2009, and 2010. However, something it amiss, and it dates back to last season. While fellow middle backer Larry Foote is older than Timmons, he plays fast and aggressive to the ball, and he makes Timmons look like he is running in sand. Something is not right here, whether it is scheme, conditioning, or lack of desire. Whatever it is, it is undeniable, and Timmons must tweak his game to help the interior of the defense.
More of an Attack Mentality on Defense
Foote, Ryan Clark, and LaMarr Woodley appear to be the only players on the defense that are playing physically and are playing with intensity. Like Timmons, the defensive line, Chris Carter, Jason Worilds, Ike Taylor, and Keenan Lewis seem to be playing passively instead of aggressively. When you are out-powered by Carson Palmer and company, it is a problem. A player like Woodley or Clark needs to call out this defense for their paddy-cake play and remind them that they are wearing a black and gold uniform. Even if the personnel cannot make plays, they should at least look like they are making an admirable effort on the field.