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State of the Steelers

SCI publisher Jim Wexell goes back to early last practice week to understand the Steelers' season-ending loss, but sees nothing but a bright future.

I didn't think I would have to say this, but it's looking like fans are going to be in for a pleasant surprise when their Pittsburgh Steelers ascend to the truly elite class of the NFL next season.

Did I really have to say that after this young team went on a thrilling nine-game winning streak and finished in the final four?

Apparently so, judging from the cannibalism that's devouring the team after their last performance.

"Jim, Steelers have serious issues," someone wrote to me in a text. 

Now, this guy's one of the area's greatest all-time athletes and a former Pitt national championship football player, so I take what he says seriously, and read on.

"The team has so much better talent, more athletic talent than the Patriots. They were outplayed and outcoached on both sides of the ball and ... were aware of it. ... When the opponent beats you that badly, with a receiver who played lacrosse in college and a running back you cut, the alarm bell in Steelers headquarters should still be ringing."

His message was typical of what I had been reading since the Steelers lost to the Patriots.

I responded to him the same way I responded to the many like-minded fans on interactive media -- with disbelief. 

Hadn't anyone noticed the following:

1. Running on empty.

The Steelers played an exhausting and emotional game at Kansas City -- the fourth in fifth games that went to the wire -- and got home at 5 a.m. 

I watched Wednesday's practice and wondered where was all the chatter and just plain energetic fun that had been at such practices the previous nine weeks. I really thought they were sluggish and asked two players about it.

"Today wasn't really sluggish," said the ever-insightful Ross Cockrell. "But today was definitely a day to see where we are in the recuperation process."

I did notice one guy on the field with boundless energy. As always, from early May through late January, it was Mike Tomlin.

"Yeah. It amazes me, too," Cockrell said. "His energy, the preparation he brings each and every week to us, is a special thing. He's a special coach. He's the reason we are where we are now."

I wonder if Tomlin would ever admit to feeling the need to stir his team from its understandable slumber on that day.

Anyway, I went to Maurkice Pouncey, the energy hub of the group, to ask him about the lost night of sleep. He, like Cockrell, dismissed it and unknowingly deflected and made me think of another story idea. Thus my own mind began to wander from that of "This team's going to get its *** kicked" to "Well, they are kind of toughened by all of this."

Here's Pouncey on whether the guys were dragging early in the practice week:

"No, heck no. It was nice and fine. I actually got about five hours of sleep and came in on Monday and worked out. Deebo came straight from the plane so it gave me a little extra motivation to get up."

James Harrison going from the airport to the gym became the new story idea. Pouncey told the story of seeing Harrison's video while getting out of bed and how it motivated him. 

He said Harrison told no one. 

I asked Pouncey if Harrison, one of the team's vital pass-rushers, got any sleep on the plane.

"No, Deebo's scared to fly. He has problems flying so he didn't sleep."

I didn't use that part in any story. I should have, but I was caught up in the pending hoopla and foolishly remained positive about this team's chances against a team that had a bye, was healthy and was coming off an easy, unemotional win.

The Steelers did perk up by Friday, and I said to a friend that perhaps it's an emotional crescendo, that it's better to increase tempo and energy than have it the first day.

Um, yeah.

But even at that practice, where I was the only reporter (even they were tired) and I watched the team work on Brady's tempo changes, the safeties, Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell, were in and out. I remember Tomlin laying down the three keys, or times, at which Brady most likes to change tempos. Mitchell was on the sideline going over those keys with Tomlin instead of taking the actual reps. There was some hurting and patching together going on, and of course I tried to put it out of my mind, because, hey, Le'Veon Bell was finally practicing.

I think you're getting my drift.

2. The game plan was blocked up.

I watched a pregame show in which one of the more serious ex-players picked New England because Tom Brady always chews up zone teams and the Steelers couldn't possibly change who they were in the AFC title game. "At this point, you are who you are," said the guy, whose name I wish I could remember.

But I had learned something else prior to that: The Steelers had a better interior pass rush than at any other time during their Brady Wars, and that they also had Ryan Shazier ready to fire-X that awful Patriots interior OL. Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, even Bud Dupree were coming up the middle, and those offensive tackles weren't going to stop Dupree or Harrison, either. Let them play the zone and let Brady die a quick death, because it also had been pointed out to me that "We're going to hit him early and often, even if it costs us 15."

Meanwhile, I pulled into Foxboro listening to talk shows about Brady ripping into his OL during practice for its performance last week. 

Gulp.

Push it to back of mind, and proceed.

And, of course, bing, bang, boom, we're in full hate-the-coaches mode this week. 

Yes, they were outcoached and outplayed by a rested and fully prepared team. Brady beat their zone, and in the second half he crushed their man. And his line picked up every blitz, stunt and game the Steelers threw at them. 

Two plays stand out in my mind: One, the Steelers tipped off what looked to me was about to be a full blitz. And I sensed Brady was going down. But he audibled, changed everything about the formation. The Steelers scrambled back for their lives, rushed three and got burned for a huge gain. The other play lined up with LeGarrette Blount in I-formation with his fullback. The Steelers were coming because it wasn't short yardage. But both the fullback and the tailback picked up blitzers. Brady gauged them again.

Have to tip your cap. You just have to.

3. Offensive woes.

This is one area from which my reporting did not shrink. I didn't like the secondary and tertiary receivers. 

Check that. I liked what youngsters such as Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers were doing in terms of growth and providing roster depth. And, frankly, they stepped in and did an admirable job. Rogers continually surprised me as he rose to become a decent slot receiving weapon, and possibly a championship one. But they needed a No. 2. Sammie Coates finally began to show some of his old deep prowess and ball confidence in practice. I even predicted he would have a big game on Twitter.

Well, he blew a chance for a touchdown on a perfectly thrown third-and-1 bomb in the first series. And Hamilton dropped a touchdown pass and stepped out of bounds before catching another. Rogers had a critical fumble.

This after losing their MVP, Bell, in the first quarter. 

Yes, I disagreed with the playcalling at the goal line, but it wasn't as if they went 5-wide/empty on first down at the foot-line. They at least ran it. I just thought they should've either sneaked or used a fullback. But with the offense lacking weaponry, of which I had complained throughout the second half of the season, I just can't get that upset over the lack of offense in this game. The Patriots led the NFL in scoring defense, didn't they? And they were at home? Healthy? Playing their first truly emotional game all season?

Something like that.

4. Next year.

This was such an emotional run down the stretch, and it ended with such a thud, that I completely understand Ben Roethlisberger's response on the radio about reconsidering his return next year. But as I wrote on the message board, it seemed more like a let-me-breathe-for-a-minute moment than a serious reflection about his future.

I could be wrong, but the guy's going to have a completely buffed big man receiver in Martavis Bryant opposite Antonio Brown, with much well-honed depth at both receiver, slot and tight end spots. Jesse James grew immensely, and Xavier Grimble is a legitimate NFL tight end with even more growth ahead. And that's leaving out the big man with the concussion issues, Ladarius Green. 

Imagine those receiving threats with an OL that also grew immensely and developed serious depth, with even more, Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins, coming back.

The only position the offense truly needs to address in the draft -- if Green is deemed healthy -- is running back, because I can't see DeAngelo Williams coming back after missing so much time the last two years with injuries. I see a beastly Karlos Williams -- who's down to his very last chance -- joining a group that should include a pick from a deep draft crop, and all of it giving the great Lev Bell more room to breathe throughout the season.

On defense, I see Senzquez Golson and a high draft pick competing for the slot corner spot and giving this team more man-coverage flexibility. That's what Tomlin wants. Yes, he installed a cover-2 base secondary, but his stated goal is flexibility that can stop any team it comes across, such as the Brady Patriots.

Of course, Cameron Heyward will be back, and as Ramon Foster explained to me about losing Pouncey in 2015, the loss made everyone else on the OL grow. Foster said it will, and already has, done the same for the DL.

And Bud Dupree. Need we say more about him? 

The two rookies in the secondary will grow by leaps and bounds as well. 

The other top need is a pass-rusher to groom behind, hopefully, a returning Harrison, along with developed depth in Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats. I also expect Lawrence Timmons to re-sign and finish his career here in the same way James Farrior did. Timmons even talked about mimicking Farrior's latter-day weight loss because he can use his brains more than his braun these days.

If last year was a year to call them a Super Bowl contender, it was more bravado than anything. But next year will be the real thing. Just wish them good health as they take the next few weeks off before getting back to the grind. There's too much camaraderie that's been built to stay down in the gutter very long with the understandable negativity that comes with such a difficult loss.


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