Behind Enemy Lines: The Steelers' Perspective

We begin our three-part series with five questions to Steel City Insider's Jim Wexell. Leading off: What exactly has gone wrong in Pittsburgh, or were the Steelers able to hide some of their flaws during their run to the championship? Jim minces few words in this breakdown.

We start our three-part Behind Enemy Lines series with Jim Wexell, the publisher of Steel City Insider.

Bill: I think everyone is stunned with what's happened in Pittsburgh. As someone who sees the team every day, are you just as surprised or were there maybe some chinks in the armor early this season or even last year?

Jim: Well, there are Super Bowl hangovers, and this team wasn't a dominating team last season. I'd hoped they'd take that step to become a dominating team, but they're pretty much the same team, a team that thrives in the underdog role but is always less than stellar as a favorite — defending champs, of course, are always the favorite. Also, winning the Super Bowl forced Mike Tomlin to hold off on any changes he might've made with his coaching staff. He was hired as a 34-year-old with one year experience as a coordinator, so how big could his network have possibly been? I think he scrambled to put his first staff together, then kept them all after the first season out of loyalty and a sense of stability that this organization promotes, and when the problems became obvious his second year, they were forgotten with the Super Bowl win. At the end of the season, you'll see plenty of changes.

Bill: For a lot of this season, Aaron Rodgers was tagged as a quarterback who holds onto the ball too long. He's been sacked 47 times. Not too far behind is Ben Roethlisberger, who's been sacked 38 times. What's the story? Is it bad blocking? And is Big Ben playing any differently than when he won a couple Super Bowls?


Sacks have been an issue for Big Ben.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Jim: Bad blocking and sometimes the receivers miss the hots and/or can't get open, but there's also Ben's larger-than-life status within the organization. The OC includes him in game-planning and has succeeded in growing him as a leader. But the worry is that all of it has spiraled out of control. With every great game he has as a scrambling, playground-style quarterback, his development as a pocket passer gets shoved to the backburner. It's understandable that many of his fans and the media would become sycophants, but it's almost as if the OC has become one as well. Therefore, his agenda continues to promote Ben, Ben, all the time Ben. Some in the organization expect sweeping changes on that side of the ball, with Ben getting a talking to from the guy signing that $102 million check about buying fully into the new program: An OC with paternal-type authority and a QB coach who greets him on the sideline after every series and picks his brain and forces him to think and act like a pocket quarterback. Ben's 10- to 15-pound weight gain in the offseason hasn't helped his elusiveness either. 

Bill: Maybe a piggyback question, but you were pretty hard on the play-calling after the Cleveland game, starting with the Steelers getting two runs for 9 yards before going empty on third-and-1. Have the Steelers gone, dare I say, just a little soft on offense?

Jim: Of course. And Cleveland came at them with a big back in the Wildcat, showing Art Rooney II — presiding in solo fashion for the first time with his dad over in Ireland — that one team in awful December weather was physical and one was finesse. It had to particularly gall "The Deuce" that the physical team was Cleveland's and the finesse team was Pittsburgh's. And a finesse offense always bleeds over into the defense, which, without Aaron Smith, one of the few physical presences on that side of the ball, was lacking in the first place.

Bill: The Packers have been able to survive without defensive stalwarts Al Harris and Aaron Kampman. Not so in Pittsburgh, with the Steelers really missing Troy Polamalu. What do the Steelers miss as far as production and leadership?


The Steelers miss Troy Polamalu.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Jim: I've written so much about this that I don't even know where to start. The big thing is Troy always put doubt into a QB's mind before the snap. That doubt is gone, replaced by confidence. Conversely, there's doubt in a secondary that's been exposed for its marginal athleticism. This is the kind of talk that has turned FS Ryan Clark into a psychopath with the media of late, but it's the truth and the numbers and fourth-quarter collapses (when the other teams have to pass) bear it out.

Bill: I know you'll like this question after reading your stories from the past few days. The defending Super Bowl champions have lost five straight — a feat never accomplished in NFL history. Has this team quit?

Jim: I've lost my vim and vigor with this one because people have gone back and actually watched the game devoid of their initial emotion, and it's clear the Steelers gave a great effort. It's all on tape. I don't need to rage about it anymore. (BTW, is vim a real word?) Anyway, just to edit your question, they're not the first defending Super Bowl champion to lose five straight, they're the first NFL champion to lose five straight. Someone who covers a team that's had so many forgotten titles due to modern-era Super Bowl ignorance will appreciate that. Again, the 1987 defending champion Giants who lost five straight lost three of those games with scabs.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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