What looked to be a Super Bowl contender instead is one of the most disappointing teams of the decade, which understandably has led to a lot of questions about where this team goes in the future. Yesterday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Ed Bouchette took those concerns and effectively buried this group of Steelers saying that Pittsburgh likely will get worse before it gets better. Bouchette is clearly the dean of the Steelers beat, so anything he says has to be taken very seriously.
But in reading Bouchette's obituary what jumps out is that it may be a little premature. This is a horrendous season and clearly changes will have to be made, but it may be the kind of story that would be better written outside of the in-season "what have you done for me lately" pressure.This Steelers team didn't trail anyone by more than one touchdown until the 13th game of the season. Five of their seven losses have been by a field goal. Pittsburgh beat Minnesota, San Diego and Denver by double-digits. The 2009 Steelers have shown little heart and no ability to finish off an opponent, but they also have shown that they are able to compete with anyone one in the league.
In Bouchette's words the Steelers have gotten everything they could out of the core that has won two Super Bowls and made an additional AFC Championship appearance. But if you go through Bouchette's arguments point by point, some stand up and some do not. Here's a look argument by argument.
1. The defense is old.
What Bouchette says:
Here are the ages next year of some starting defenders: Casey Hampton, 33; Brett Keisel, 32; Aaron Smith, 34; James Farrior, 35; James Harrison, 32; Ike Taylor, 30; Ryan Clark, 31. And the ages of their top replacements: Tyrone Carter, 34; Deshea Townsend, 35; Travis Kirschke, 36; Chris Hoke, 34; Nick Eason, 30.
The Reality: Bouchette's stats are correct as you would expect and the age of the defense has to be one of the big concerns for the Steelers going forward. But it's also worth noting that Hampton, Clark, Carter, Eason and Townsend are free agents at the end of the season. So while they may be old, they are more of a sign that the Steelers have some holes to fill in the offseason rather than senior citizens who will be playing key roles for Pittsburgh in 2010.
2. The defense has few replacements on the roster.
What Bouchette says:
The other problem is there are few replacements on the roster. They have no young, upcoming linebackers behind the starters and only Ziggy Hood in the defensive line. They drafted two cornerbacks in the third and fifth rounds this season and have been reluctant to use or even dress one of them in the face of poor play at cornerback much of the season. Ryan Mundy is their only young safety who could possibly compete to start.
The Reality: There are no young upcoming linebackers, although Pittsburgh does have five starting caliber linebackers with Keyaron Fox proving he's a decent inside linebacker option. Ziggy Hood is one of two young defensive linemen on the roster--Sonny Harris is on the roster as well. While Harris may not be a future starter, the veterans were impressed with his work in the preseason and he could end up filling a similar role to what Eason did this year--a fifth/sixth defensive lineman.
But the biggest problem with this paragraph is the argument that the Steelers drafted two cornerbacks who they have been reluctant to use. Considering the history of rookies in Dick LeBeau's defense, that means absolutely nothing--almost no rookie defensive backs see significant roles in LeBeau's defense. Troy Polamalu was completely lost as a rookie before becoming a star in his second year. Chris Hope was stuck as a backup for two years behind a slew of below-average safeties before he got to start. He turned into a Pro Bowler. Ike Taylor has been the Steelers' best cornerback for much of the past five years, but he didn't start until his third season. Bryant McFadden started one game as a rookie. Deshea Townsend didn't start consistently until his fifth season in Pittsburgh.
3. The offensive line isn't very good.
What Bouchette says:
They have good talent at skilled positions, including Rashard Mendenhall, Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger. What they do not have is a good, solid offensive line and it has become an offense that no longer can run when it has to run.
The Reality: No one would argue that this offensive line is any good. They've been below average for much of the past five years, somehow winning two Super Bowls despite that. What we don't know is how much of the Steelers' trouble with running the ball and pass protection is because of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' play calling and offensive line coach Larry Zierlein and how much of it is the fault of the players. Many of the Steelers' sacks (14 of their 38 sacks this season by my count) have come on plays where a pass-rusher has come through unblocked or barely blocked because of the play call or confusion among the line and backs in blitz pickup. Some of those sacks are always going to happen, but it's fair to suggest that the Steelers could cut that number of sacks with some changes in coaching.
This is probably Bouchette's best argument, but again it's worth noting Pittsburgh won a Super Bowl in 2008 with a worse offensive line than this year's. So it's hard to say the Steelers are doomed by their offensive line going into 2010 and beyond.
4. The have no compliment for Rashard Mendenhall once Willie Parker leaves in free agency.
What Bouchette says:
Also, they have no complementary running back to go with Mendenhall. Willie Parker's contract expires at the end of the year, he will turn 30 next year and there seems no initiative to want to keep him.
The Reality: Yes Parker will leave at the end of the season, but last year Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell backing up a gimpy Parker. Even more importantly it's quite easy to find a backup running back. If Pittsburgh needed a legitimate No. 1 back, they would be in trouble in 2010. But with a 1,000-yard+ running back entrenched as the starter next year Pittsburgh can scan the bargain free-agent market or draft a middle-round tailback to fill the backup role.
The Steelers have some significant decisions to make in the offseason, but after spending the entire year ensuring that they kept the core of this Steelers' team together through the 2010 season, Pittsburgh would be crazy to blow things up and start over.
With just mediocre special teams, Pittsburgh would be a playoff team. With an offseason to get hungry again after a very apparent post-Super Bowl malaise, the Steelers still have enough stars (Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward and LaMarr Woodley) to tweak the roster rather than aim for 2011 and beyond. That will be helped by a higher-than-expected draft position this year thanks to the complete collapse.
If Pittsburgh fails to contend again in 2010, it will be time to rebuild again, much like Pittsburgh did in the late 1990s when the core of the 1995 Super Bowl team got old or left in free agency. But in a season where Pittsburgh has figured out how to lose close games week after week, it's not time to panic yet.