Ryan Wilson, SteelCityInsider.com: Well, heading into the Cardinals game, I didn't think the loss of Hines Ward would be such a big deal. It was. Not so much because of his pass-catching ability, which shouldn't be overlooked, but because of what he brings as a blocker. Arizona had eight guys in the box, and Pittsburgh had seven guys to block. The results were predictable.
Casey Hampton's backup, Chris Hoke, is a solid player. He replaced Hampton for much of the 2004 season and did very well. Unfortunately, he had to leave the Cards game with a neck injury, which forced the Steelers to move defensive end Travis Kirshke to the middle. Let's just say teams don't have to double-team Kirshke.
The Steelers have three really good safeties in Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Anthony Smith. Tyrone Carter is a veteran backup and special teams contributor, and while he's steady at strong safety, he's not even on the same planet as Polamalu in terms of ability.
Luckily, it looks like Ward,
Hampton and Polamalu will all be available Sunday, although nickel back Bryant McFadden will be out for a while with the ol' high-ankle sprain.
Doug Farrar: Since we both write for Football Outsiders, we’re both well aware of the potential perils of running back overuse – and right now, both Willie Parker and Shaun Alexander seem to be on pace to trip the wire of that infamous 370-carry limit. In fact, they’re first and second in rushing attempts with 93 and 91 through four games. Are the Steelers moving decidedly away from their previous running back-by-committee mindset, and do you think they’ll use Parker this much all year?
Ryan Wilson: You know, it's interesting. Head coach Mike Tomlin has said he's pro-running-back-by-committee, but through four weeks, it doesn't seem like it. For a lot of fans, the Curse of 370 is worrisome, particularly since Parker's relatively small. He's had a history of nicks and bruises that cause him to miss a few games a season, and honestly, that might be what saves him from overuse. Or, I suppose the Steelers could face the Cardinals' front seven every week. That would save Parker too.
Pittsburgh cut Verron Haynes
this preseason, and gave the job to Najeh Davenport. He's been great in mop-up
duty, but he really hasn't been tested when the games have been close. I wouldn't
mind him getting more first-half work -- he runs the screen pretty well -- but
Tomlin is of the opinion that Parker gets better as the game progresses. I'm
sure he knows about 370, it's just a question of whether he believes it. Right
now, I'd have to say he doesn't.
Doug Farrar: The word is that Ben Roethlisberger is back on track after a subpar 2006 season, and the numbers seem to bear that out so far. Does this have anything to do with new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, or is it just more about Big Ben avoiding the Evel Kneivel thing?
Ryan Wilson: Nah, I don't think Arians' offense is decidedly different from what the Steelers were doing under Ken Whisenhunt. Apparently, Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger had some weird offensive coordinator-quarterback thing going on, but it seemed like less of a problem in 2004 and 2005. Winning is funny that way.
In addition to not recently
having his brains scrambled, Big Ben has also committed himself to studying
film and taking more at-the-line responsibilities. His footwork is also a million
times better, and he's doing a better job of getting rid of the ball. That said,
he's not afraid to stand in the pocket if he thinks he can make a play. It's
great when it works, but ideally, as a fan, you'd prefer he just launch the
ball in the stands and move on. He's gotten better at it -- and his sack totals
support this, but he occasionally relapses.
Doug Farrar: Hines Ward is still the Man among Pittsburgh’s receivers, but the Steelers are also using a lot of two-tight end sets. Who besides Ward must the Seahawks account for in the passing game?
Ryan Wilson: Santonio Holmes is emerging as a legit threat, and coming from Ohio State, he's already a pretty good blocker. For the longest time, opposing defenses double-teamed Ward, but now it's not so easy. In addition to Holmes, 2005 first-rounder, tight end Heath Miller, is quietly having a Pro Bowl season. Pittsburgh also used a 2007 third-round pick on tight end Matt Spaeth -- much to the consternation of Steelers fans -- and he caught two touchdown passes in his first two games. Arians indicated during training camp that he planned on utilizing a lot of two and three tight-end sets, and that's exactly what he's done.
Wideout Nate Washington
enters Year 3, and so far, it's been a disappointment. He's an undrafted free
agent out of Tiffin University, so he's a fan favorite. But Washington's struggled
with the dropsies, and short of killing dogs, I can't think of anything that'll
cause the crowd to turn on you quicker.
Doug Farrar: In 2006, Pittsburgh’s offensive line finished 22nd in Adjusted Line Yards and 25th in Adjusted Sack Rate. This year, they seem to be opening holes and protecting with more aggression and purpose. To what would you attribute this, and is there any chance that Alan Faneca will be a member of this team next year?
Ryan Wilson: Alan Faneca is, without a doubt, the best lineman on this unit. Unfortunately, I don't see him coming back. I'm of the opinion that the big bucks should go to the tackles -- the interior guys are easier to replace -- but I'm starting to soften on that stance. Concerning the Steelers' early-season success, well, I'm as shocked as the next guy. All off-season, ask any fan, and the biggest worry was the state of the offensive line.
I think some of the results have to do with the competition -- the Browns, Bills, and 49ers to start the season -- but also with new offensive line coach, Larry Zierlein. Apparently, Russ Grimm was more of a "this is what you have to do, just make sure you get it done" type of coach, while Zierlein is more about technique.
The Cardinals did a great
job of controlling the line of scrimmage, but as Tomlin pointed out in his midweek
press conference, having a bunch of third-and-forevers doesn't make the line's
job any easier. Also, as I mentioned above, Roethlisberger has done a better
job of getting the ball out of his hands. A quarterback can go a long way in
making his o-line look good. Just ask Kurt Warner.