The Bill Cowher era is officially over in Pittsburgh and the Mike Tomlin era will take flight Sunday in Cleveland.
Pittsburgh is still blitzburgh and that isn't likely to change anytime soon, especially with legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau calling the shots. In fact, this Steelers team will likely show even more blitz packages than in the past.
Mike Tomlin will be instilling a lot of his zone blocking scheme into the Steelers philosophy and he won't be moving the team away from the 3-4. It will be a variation of his Tampa 2 but in the 3-4 scheme. This simply means he will have 1 less defensive lineman up front getting pressure but an extra lineman to drop into his zone or to blitz. One thing with any Tomlin coached defense: they will play with incredible discipline.
Up front, the Steelers still depend on nose tackle Casey Hampton to control the middle. Hampton may have lost a step physically but he more than makes up for it with his knowledge of how to play the position. The defensive ends also bring a wealth of experience to the table with veterans Bret Keisel and Aaron Smith. Most consider 3-4 ends to be huge space eaters but Keisel doesn't even look his listed weight of 285. For a 3-4 end it is more important to understand the position than to simply be a big space eater that can't move.
The heart of the Steelers defense continues to be the tremendously talented linebackers. Joey Porter is now a Dolphin but they haven't skipped a beat with the drafting of rookies Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. Timmons has looked explosive off the edge and both have made tremendous progress under the tutelage of veterans Clark Haggans, James Farrior and Larry Foote. Farrior is simply one of the best run stuffing linebackers in the game. He plays with passion as he is willing to do whatever it takes to shutdown the inside running lanes and forcing the play outside. Look for some huge collisions between Farrior and fullback Charles Ali.
The return of a healthy Troy Polamalu adds a big play dynamic to the safety position as Troy is the best blitzing safety in football but although he has made tremendous strides in his coverage ability, he should remain a target in the passing game.
Unless some of the youngsters step it up along with Troy, the secondary will be have a bull's eye on its back all season long. Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend can get it done in zone coverage but if they are asked to play a lot of man coverage, they will be exposed.
The biggest change that one will see with the Mike Tomlin era will be in the offense. Bruce Arians takes over as offensive coordinator and Bruce will operate a much more balanced offense. Part of the reason why there will be more balance is the type of running back weapon with which he has to work.
Fast Willie Parker is one of the most explosive backs in the league. He is tough enough to run through the tackles and fast enough to take it everywhere else. This year he may not have as many carries as last season but he will likely have a higher number of touches. Arians' offense looks to get the running back involved in the passing game as well as the running game.
Arians will run his dink-and-dunk short passing game and then send everyone vertical, drawing defenders downfield and allowing his back to take the short dump down pass behind the blocking receivers. The Steelers always have one of the best blocking receiver corps in football, led by Hines Ward. Also, the speed of wide receiver Santonio Holmes is critical for allowing the short dump downs and running back screens to have success. His speed will take multiple defenders with him and if the safeties stay at home the quarterback then has Santonio Holmes deep and in single coverage. Tight end Heath Miller will hear his number called a lot more in Arians scheme especially when teams go zone.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisburger looks to be completely recovered from his disastrous season a year ago. In 2006, pretty much anything that could go wrong did go wrong... including going head first through a windshield as well as suffering through an emergency appendectomy. Ben will have more responsibility and a lot more options in the new Bruce Arians offense. He will have the luxury of multiple receivers to choose from with someone looking to break it deep on every possession. Ben's ability to sell the play action fake will be instrumental for the Steelers.
The Steelers offensive line will likely suffer some early symptoms of change as they will be asked to go without their line coach Russ Grimm. They will also be asked to provide pass protection for longer periods of time as in Arians offense it often takes longer for the receivers to get open on the crossing patterns. Another issue will be the loss of retired center Jeff Hartings. A change at center can be a huge move and ean Mahan is no stranger to the Steelers line, but it is different with him making the calls.
Look for the Steelers to go with a hurry-up offense to keep the aged Browns defensive line on the field. If they get up to the line and then call the play, it will not give Ted Washington and Orpheus Roye a chance to get off the field.
The last time the Browns defense saw Willie Parker, they spent the night trying to catch him from behind as Parker amassed 232 yards rushing. It could have been well over 300 if the Steelers hadn't decided to give him a rest in a meaningless blowout. The one play that continues to jump into my head is when former Pittsburgh center Jeff Hartings drives both the nose tackle Ted Washington and inside backer Andra Davis 8 yards off the line of scrimmage with one hand on each player, allowing Willie Parker to go the distance. Jeff Hartings has retired but this game will still be decided in the trenches.
Nose tackle Ted Washington has looked horrible throughout preseason. The play was often over before he seemed to even get out of his stance. Backup nose tackle Shawn Smith played out of position at defensive end as Orpheus Roye and Simon Fraser sat out due to injuries. Right defensive end Robaire Smith appears to be the one upgrade along the line but when teams can run all over the left side and through the middle, there is no reason to even test Robaire Smith's run stuffing ability.
I am still puzzled that the Browns released the one interior lineman that seemed to actually hold his ground against opposing offenses as well as show the ability to penetrate the pocket: Babatunda Oshinowo. The Browns obviously chose to go with a win now philosophy in going with several veterans past their prime but I do wonder how much the decision hurts this teams future and how much it really helps their present?
With the defensive front three expected to struggle, it will mean that the linebackers must be prepared to take on the guards on a consistent basis. Look for an increased rotation with the inside backers as Andra Davis, D'Qwell Jackson, Chaun Thompson and Leon Williams will likely be shuffled in an out to keep them fresh. They will be cheating up to play the run all game long which will make the job of covering tight end Heath Miller an extremely difficult task. The key for the linebackers will be to jam Miller hard at the line as they eyeball the run. If Miller is simply allowed to release into the secondary on a consistent basis, it will be a long game for the Browns secondary.
The greatest strength the Browns defense will have are outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and Antwan Peek. Peek replaces the injured Willie McGinnest as he recovers from a back injury. Peek has been exceptional since becoming a Brown. He has made steady improvement against the run and he has also shown some explosiveness in getting into the pocket and into the lap of the quarterback. The key match up will be linebacker Kamerion Wimbley facing off against Marvel Smith. Wimbley shoots the outside so fast and gets so low in his bend it is very difficult for larger tackles to contain him. The winner of this match up could very well decide this contest.
The safety combo of Sean Jones and Brodney Pool was very solid but also very quiet all preseason. Part of the reason was that the Browns didn't want to show opposing offenses very much in preseason. Another part of it was the fact that Pool is still in the learning process. He didn't give up the big play but there was a slight hesitancy with Pool as he appeared to be thinking about what was transpiring in front of him instead of simply reading and reacting. This improved during each of the preseason contests as he became more comfortable but it is still something to look for in Sunday's contest. Jones and Pool will have their hands full as they will not only be asked to help contain the likes of Santonio Holmes, Hines Ward and Heath Miller but they will also be asked to support the run defense as well as provide the occasional blitz. Look for a great game out of Jones and Pool as they will be everywhere. One major concern for the Browns is the lack of depth at the safety position.
The Browns cornerback situation has gone from a nightmare scenario to a position of true strength with the return of a healthy Leigh Bodden and also the emergence of third year corner Daven Holly. Bodden is one of the best open field tacklers in football and when he is fully healthy he can be a shut-down type corner. Holly simply has a nose for the football. He will likely fill the role of the nickel this year and should find himself with a lot of opportunities to make the interception.
The real story with the corners is the emergence of Eric Wright. I will admit
that I was a critic of the drafting of Wright but he is proving me wrong and
also proving that character is not an issue. His skills are even better than
advertised. He simply has an effortless backpedal and break on the ball. There
are few natural corners in football blessed with the speed, hips, rotation, back
pedal and the hands but Eric Wright appears to be just that, a natural born
Everyone is expecting to see the Browns come out and pound the football as they try to keep the pressure off of the back of quarterback Charlie Frye and force running back Jamal Lewis to carry this team on their shoulders. That sounds very good in theory, but the reality is much different.
The Steelers are one of the hardest teams to run on in football and Jamal Lewis hasn't put up 100 yards against the Steelers since 2003. For all of the talk about the improved Browns offensive line, this line is not a very good run blocking line. They are excellent in pass protection and getting into the second level but they haven't shown they can win the battle at the point of attack. This will improve when offensive linemen Ryan Tucker returns from his four game suspension but for now this Browns team will struggle running the football.
The most bizarre item of the week that went virtually unnoticed was the fact that Charlie Frye was not named a captain by the players. Charlie should take this as a clear message that his teammates do not see him as their leader. He can, however, use this to his advantage and become more assertive with this team. With Quinn waiting in the wings, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Charlie will need to be not only a more vocal leader but also show it in his body language. Get everyone up to the line in a hurry and get the play going quickly. Charlie can get it done but he must make those around him believe he can do it also.
Charlie should take a note from what Brady Quinn did in preseason. Quinn didn't do a lot of great things but he avoided doing bad things. Charlie should keep it simple and look for the safe play instead of looking to make the great play. Just keep the chains moving and the big play will happen. Force it and the big play will happen for the Steelers.
Braylon Edwards may be the most improved player that I saw in the NFL from last year to this year. He just appears so much more focused on his routes and also his concentration on watching the ball into his hands has finally emerged. Physically it is hard for anyone to stop Braylon other than Braylon and with a healthy Kellen Winslow taking over the middle of the field Braylon could be in for a huge day.
Look for Winslow and fellow tight end Steve Heiden to see the field a lot
together. With Heiden filling the role of tight end as Winslow fills the role of
the slot receiver. Winslow is simply to strong physically for a defensive back
to contain and to fast for a linebacker to stay with. Winslow should have a huge
day facing the blitz happy Steeler defense.
Special Teams Notes
Punter Dave Zastudil suffered a back injury this week and his status for Sunday's game is unknown. Dave is one of the best punters in the game and if he can't go, it could make for a huge difference in starting field position.
Allen Rossum has taken over return duties for the Steelers replacing Santonio Holmes. This should help Holmes become a better receiver as he can now put his full focus on the position.
Rookie punter Daniel Sepulveda will make his debut against the Browns Sunday. He was a sensational kicker at Baylor but this will be his first real NFL game. Look for the Browns to bring the heat and test the rookie early in this contest.
This should be a very physical contest that comes down to special teams play and field position. Look for both teams to open up the offense this week with several trick plays as a possibility. Also if there is one play that Ariens loves it is the end around. How quickly the Browns young linebackers identify the play will be key in this one.