If you listen to any of the interviews following the Steelers recent official team activities or OTAs, one of the common themes was the new approach to conditioning. I think I speak for a lot of Steelers’ fans when I say that this will be very welcome especially if it leads to fewer injuries. The injury bug has been the size of a condor in recent seasons for this team and any alteration from the status quo in the conditioning department is alright with with me.
While I’m glad the team and most definitely Head Coach Mike Tomlin have taken being in better shape more seriously than ever, I don’t want to see it become an excuse for failures in games last year. The ‘conditioning tag’ was most often applied to linebacker LaMarr Woodley who played well below expectations and his monster contract. Whether Woodely became the poster child for the new movement of being in better shape or not, he needed to be and so did the team.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Alan Robinson had a story on this issue over the past weekend. In it, Robinson points to some very key statistics that lead us to believe conditioning was a major part of the team’s decline in several games last season. As he mentioned, the Steelers blew fourth quarter leads against the Broncos in the opener, against the Raiders, the Cowboys and Titans. As linebacker Larry Foote pointed out in the article, that’s four games where the team could have been 12-4 versus 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
The year before the Steelers were on the complete opposite end of several games where they easily could have lost but won late in games. Blaming conditioning is fair, but only to a point. It cannot be the sole reason for these late-game failures.
There are other problems that haunted the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers late in games and conditioning was but one of those reasons. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again that Ben Roethlisberger has to play better in the fourth quarter. I’m pretty sure he would tell you that himself right now. I honestly believe you will see a better Roethlisberger overall in 2013 because of his comfort with the offense and the fact that Mike Wallace won’t be around to pout when he doesn’t get the ball.
Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau has to be better as well. Finishing with the number one defense is great but does it really matter when you surrender late-game leads and finish at .500? Not in my book it doesn’t. I would like to see LeBeau get more creative even when he doesn’t have his veteran favorites on the field. This defense is designed to attack and too often last season LeBeau allowed it to sit back and that just can’t happen.
Another key issue is punting. Drew Butler had a nice season as a rookie punter for the Steelers, but he must do better than 18th in the league in overall punting as well as 18th in pinning teams behind the 20 yard line. He could definitely get some help from his cover guys as well as he ranked 21st allowing returnmen to average over 10 yards per return. That could mean more airtime for the kicks as well.
While I’m glad to see the Steelers addressing the issue of health and conditioning, they cannot blindly dismiss that there were other issues that led to late game losses as well. To do so would be refusing to admit that the team failed in more than just one area in an 8-8 campaign.
Marc Uhlmann writes for and co-owns www.steelcityblitz.com. Follow him on Twitter @steeldad and follow the website at @SCBlitz. He can be heard Mondays on Trib-Live Radio at 4pm ET talking Steelers.