It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But… it is better to be good than to be ugly. ~ Oscar Wilde
Winning doesn’t always have to be pretty. But, when you play as ugly as the Steelers did on Sunday, W’s will be much harder to find than a flattering picture of Terrell Suggs. But as the caterpillar is but ugly and awkward before becoming a beautiful and graceful butterfly, so too are the Steelers of 2012.
It couldn’t be more blatantly obvious on Sunday that there are troubles deeper than a poor showing from Charlie Batch. (And, if Sunday’s game didn’t prove that Ben is not only the MVP of this team but also a top candidate in this league I don’t know what will.) There are problems in just about every facet of the game for the Steelers, and they can begin to take steps now to not only improve their play immediately, but also groom themselves for the future.
Just when we thought the line was in good shape and getting good production, the injury bug struck once again in the last two weeks. Willie Colon sat out as a late scratch, even though he dressed at first, leaving Doug Legursky to take his spot. During the game, Mike Adams suffered an ankle injury and left the game. To top things off after a terrible showing by the offensive line that allowed too much pressure on Batch and not enough push for the running game (when they held onto the ball) the Steelers placed Marcus Gilbert on the IR on Monday. They also brought John Malecki up from the practice squad – a move that probably means Adams is done for a while. However, the Steelers activated David DeCastro meaning that he could not only get time this Sunday against the Ravens but start. If Willie Colon can start, that would move Foster to right tackle. The line would look like this (from right to left): Foster, DeCastro, Pouncey, Colon, Starks. Not bad considering the state the line was Sunday and what it has been in the past. Out of the ugliness of injury could come good reps for DeCastro and a combination that potentially can get the running game going again.
It’s pretty obvious, at least when looking back at the tape that Ziggy Hood has gone from the Aaron Smith replacement to collateral damage with the pass rush. You want to know why LaMarr Woodley has had an ‘off’ season as of late? That weak left side of the line is making it difficult for any kind of pressure to get through, not to mention allowing the TE to run free to block at the second level on running plays.
Enter the newly inspired play by second year man Cameron Heyward. Heyward of late has done a solid job of locking up his assignments and taking a TE or RB along the way. His presence, though not hugely significant in the pass rush, has made a big difference in the running game. He is a good compliment to Hampton who has begun to struggle of late – ok he’s struggled all season – and is starting to take up double teams during critical downs. Did you see the Browns center, who weighs almost 100 lbs. less than Hampton, man handle him all day? It was a sad sight to see, and it only seemed to improve when Heyward was on the field. Whether he is getting better leverage on his opponent or is just attacking the line the right way, somehow Heyward is making a bigger impact than Ziggy Hood. This is an area where the Steelers can improve by giving Heyward more and more time.
The same can be said for Steve McClendon. McClendon has been only taking a little more than a handful of snaps each game – mainly situational downs when Hampton is completely ineffective on 3rd downs. But as Dom stated in his latest post, McClendon is just left to rot while his talents go to waste. Sure he was a little cray cray with his trifecta fist arm pump after he took down Trent Richardson for a big loss – wouldn’t you if you had to sit on the sidelines most of the time then finally get to do your stuff? Big Snack is not the nose tackle he once was and it’s time to let McClendon get up there and make a difference. He can in the short term and it will only make him that much better for 2013 and beyond.
Boy would it be great to have Sean Spence healthy and in this lineup. Were he healthy beyond the preseason, I think he would replace Timmons and Timmons would be in Foote’s role at this point in the season. That’s not the case so who do we have left to not only groom but make a difference with six weeks left? Jason Worilds is certainly one as well as Stevenson Sylvester. Now, Worilds is sure to get playing time if Woodley is out for this Sunday and beyond. And I think that’s a good sign. He’s played both sides of the outside position this season and can fill in for either Harrison or Woodley. Harrison has been getting back into form from his injury as of late, but will he ever possess the explosiveness off the snap that made him so good over the last three to four seasons? Woodley has yet to show glimmers of his big seasons of 2009 and 2010. Is he just suffering from a big contract hangover for the last two seasons? Or was ’09 and ’10 flukes? Either case, Worilds may not exceed the expectation of Woodley, but he can’t make things worse either.
The linebackers aren’t in ‘bust mode’ yet for the 2012 season. But, as is the case with all of these categories within this post, a switch up in the depth chart could spark beauty and harmony. And, at the very least, piss off a beginning of season starter enough to put up or shut up.
Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis have had up and down moments to the season. But wasn’t the bar set a little high anyways after coming off a surprising 1st in NFL ranking when they usually are ranked 20th or worse in pass defense? I think keeping these two as the #1 and #2 are musts and the smart thing to do, but I would love to see the Steelers move into more nickel and dime packages when there are three wide on the offensive side of the ball. Using the nickel and dime brings out Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.
These two were both born from the hail mary picks of the draft from 2011. Neither were expected to replace anyone in the secondary immediately due to Master Zen Dick LeBeau’s mantra of ‘study first play later.’ But through solid special teams play (especially Curtis Brown) and even more solid nickel coverage from Allen, these two deserve more shots on the field. That notion isn’t from a ‘well you earned it, kid’ kind of place. These guys truly have earned respect within the secondary as decent cover guys. I think LeBeau should take more chances with them by using nickel coverage more liberally instead of trying to get Timmons or Foote fall back into a soft zone that leaves the slot receiver wide open. Both Allen and Brown have great pursuit skills and can wrap a guy up, which means they can defend the run even when in nickel formation. Now that is a beautiful thing.
Lastly with the secondary – keep Will Allen on the field for as long as you can. Even if Troy Polamalu is healthy keep Will out there. Someway, somehow, Allen has gone from master of broken coverage to becoming a partner in crime next to Ryan Clark. You don’t hear Allen’s name too often but he has 30 tackles already and has only started in 7 of the 11 games. He’s a pretty decent strong safety. Sure, he’s no X factor like Troy. But, is Troy truly an X factor any more – or at least like we remember him as? I think that part of the Pittsburgh defense may be gone for a while if not for good. It’s something we should get used to, but something LeBeau has done to compensate for that is use Allen’s size to undercut routes. If you watch enough tape, you’ll begin to see that Allen will play deep for the most part and then move up for either run support or to undercut a route and take away any kind of double move a receiver might have. It’s a great move on LeBeau’s part, and it’s one of the reasons I think Ike has still been the shut down corner we know him as despite some bad covers.
Ok am I saying the season is lost? Absolutely not. Should the Steelers just start changing out guys whole sale? In some cases yes – Heyward in, Hood out. But for the most part the Steelers can start subbing in some of the aforementioned players to try and create a spark in the team. It is also a great opportunity to get some of these younger guys more reps in game time situations – far more valuable than training camp reps. I know you play to win and put your best guys out there. But maybe right now our ‘best guys’ aren’t the best for this moment in time.
Look, things got really ugly out there on Sunday. It wasn’t the fumble’itis either. The lack of discipline. The lack of execution. Those are the things that are really killing the team and it’s something the coaches can address immediately by making some lineup changes and allowing for more frequent substitutions. Come on, Tomlin, it’s time to become a butterfly.