Mike Tomlin’s mantra for years now has been ‘the standard is the standard.’ The standard he speaks is of is about winning, players stepping up in huge situations and guys filling in for starters without missing a beat.
Based on what I’ve seen over the last calendar year, the standard will continue to be the standard in Pittsburgh. Whether or not my definition of ‘standard’ fits will require you to do some more reading. What follows are my thoughts on the coming season and the prediction.
OFFENSE – After last season’s 8-8 record the organization set out to do two things offensively. One was to improve the running game and the other was to eliminate the ‘backfield by committee’ approach. Running the ball effectively means staying healthy and the NFL’s youngest offensive line has struggled to do that.
The two men charged with being the future at tackle Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert, both failed to finish the season in 2012 as injuries did them in. Can they stay healthy this year? Even if they do, can they protect Ben Roethlisberger? Based on what I’ve seen in the preseason, I have serious doubts. Both Adams and Gilbert struggled to the point where Adams basically needed a baby-sitter in the form of a tight end to help him slow the rush. That hinders the offense and limits what Todd Haley can do.
The running back situation was supposed to have been settled with the selection of Le’Veon Bell. He looks
like he’ll be laid up until after the bye week with his foot injury and then Jonathan Dwyer was cut over the weekend. Apparently the ‘standard’ in the backfield is a committee because it’s back for the first four games at least.
By keeping five tight ends, Haley looks poised to once again deploy them heavily in an effort to run the ball. In today’s NFL, I don’t buy it. Teams have way too much speed defensively now and when you pack them all in to one spot you only make it easier for them. I continue to believe that spreading defenses out is the way to go but I don’t see it happening under Haley.
There is no question the receiving corps is the strength of the offense along with a healthy Roethlisberger. Although Heath Miller is still several weeks away from returning, I think there is enough firepower to make up for his absence. Make no mistake however, his presence will be missed in both the running and passing game.
Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton and company must use their speed to create separation and allow Roethlisberger to find them on the move. Because of the quick-strike passing attack of Haley, the receivers will need to get off the line better than they did in the second half of last season.
DEFENSE – The Steelers were the number ranked defense last year but I’ve argued that was misleading stat in some ways. The top defense doesn’t blow leads to Oakland, Tennessee and Dallas. The top defense also gets more sacks and creates more turnovers. Without this defense at times however, the Steelers would never have been in games so it’s often a fine line.
Sacks and turnovers is what the front office aimed for in the draft this spring. By drafting Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas, the team addressed both age and big play needs in an effort to create QB pressure and more turnovers. Jones will get far more opportunities this year than Thomas likely will but that doesn’t mean Thomas won’t make impacting plays on defense and/or special teams.
LaMarr Woodley has no time for margin of error when it comes to excuses in 2013. He must remain healthy and he must have a big year or the defense takes a step back.
Both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark seem healthy and ready to go. In Troy’s case, his health could be the difference between a playoff season and another New Year’s at home. The defensive line must be better than last year which means holding blockers in the run game and creating chances for the backers when defending the pass.
No one argues that Dick LeBeau is a great defensive coordinator but I believe a lot of what he does has become predictable. The dreaded ‘double-fire blitz’ over the A gaps is as predictable as a cliché’ filled press conference from Mike Tomlin. LeBeau will have to gamble more than ever in an effort to create sacks and turnovers and that is something he is often unwilling to do.
SPECIAL TEAMS– Drew Butler fought off a challenge by veteran Brian Moorman and will need to live up to that by keeping his improved hang time. His ability to give teams long fields against the Steelers will be paramount to the overall success of the team.
Shaun Suisham returns to do the place kicking and unlike the year before, I didn’t have nearly the heart palpitations last year. Sushi will still struggle on anything over 48 yards but his consistency is damn good and appreciated.
I’m much less worried about the return game than I thought I would be at this point and that’s because I have greater concerns. Now that coach Danny Smith has ‘his guys’ for his units, the coverage teams better be a significant step up from what they showed during the preseason and last year and the Steelers will once again lose games they should otherwise win.
PREDICTION – There have been two themes that have haunted the Steelers more and more over the last few years and those are penalties and turnovers. Neither of those things were absent in this preseason despite Coach Tomlin claiming they would be cleaned up.
If the standard truly is the standard then the players would have received the message but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. One area where Tomlin himself must improve is his in-game management which often leaves a lot to be desired.
I have very little confidence in the offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger for a full season and I worry he may once again be unable to complete a full season because of this. I fear an almost exact repeat of last season where Roethlisberger will get off to a great start only to falter because of the abuse he’ll take behind this line.
In closing, I wish I shared the optimism of so many fans I’ve chatted with this week. I’ve seen 10-6, 11-5 and even 12-4 predicted by them but I can’t follow their lead.
The division will be tougher and more balanced than ever. That could mean any number of things but right now; I don’t see the improvement I thought I would in the Steelers in terms of mistakes and staying healthy. I think we are in for another 8-8 campaign in the Steel City which I fear is becoming the ‘standard.’
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.