Can one player make the difference?

This off-season the Steelers' front office seemed to pull all the right levers; overpriced free agents moved on and all but four players were re-signed. Blogger Ryan Wilson wonders if the loss of one of these players is responsible for Pittsburgh's abysmal start to the season.

I think most sane people can agree that the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers aren't who we thought they were. The 2005 team proved that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Granted, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope and Jerome Bettis were pretty important parts, but not many people predicted the swiftness with which the team elevator would crash-land in the basement after their departures.

But here we are, the first week of November, staring 2-6 right in the face. Von Oelhoffen is now with the Jets, Randle El is the highest paid punt returner in the galaxy, Chris Hope has availed himself nicely in Tennessee and Bettis has moved to the television studio. So who, if anybody, do the Steelers miss most?

With Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark having a solid season, the easy answer is Randle El, although it wasn't quite so obvious last off-season. With the special teams -- both the return and coverage units -- in shambles, I'm starting to think that Randle El might be worth the $10 million in guarantees the Redskins offered him in what seemed like at the time the most ridiculous contract ever.

(I say "at the time" because a few hours later Washington out-ridiculous-ed themselves by offering similar contracts to Brandon Lloyd -- the No. 2 guy behind Cedrick Wilson in San Francisco -- and safety Adam Archuleta, who was just benched in favor of recently-released-from-Buffalo, 15-year-retread Troy Vincent. Never say the Redskins front office isn't good for a laugh. But don't chuckle for too long, you're a Steelers fan, remember? We've got our own problems.)

I know Pittsburgh was tight against the cap for most of the off-season, but let's just say they had $10 million available. Knowing what you know now, don't you think giving Randle El a one-year, $10-million deal would've been worth it? At least if you're of the opinion that he would have, by virtue of simply being able to catch a punt, given the Steelers two, maybe three more wins this season?

Potentially, the Steelers would be either one or two games back in the loss column to the AFC-North leading Baltimore (I just punched myself in the face after typing those last four words), with five division games to go on the schedule, including two against the Ravens. Oh, the what-ifs. And if we all weren't so concerned with wondering why the Three Stooges now star on Pittsburgh's special teams (and occasionally at quarterback; it depends on whether Larry has been slapped about the head recently), we'd have time to sit back and enjoy the Cincinnati Bengals imploding. Just like the good Lord intended.

After Randle El, Bettis is probably the second-most-missed former Steelers player. When he retired, I was sure that Willie Parker, Duce Staley and Verron Haynes would be able to more than make up the Bus's lost output. Well, Duce Staley is only a former blobby shell of himself (kinda like when you stick a pot pie in the oven too long), Verron Haynes is on injured reserve and Willie Parker clearly can't do it all by himself. As recently as four games ago, I was still of the opinion that Bettis wouldn't be missed, except that early-season addition Najeh Davenport replaced Staley on the running-back-by-committee list above.

It's amazing how a few demoralizing defeats can change your mind. Now, I'm convinced the Steelers miss Bettis a lot more than anyone ever imagined and discounting all the turnovers (which is kinda like saying, "If you ignore the fact that this car doesn't have any wheels, it runs great!"), the team has been scrambling to find the right combination of players to make up the difference. I'll let you know when they crack the code.

That said, I'm still happy Pittsburgh passed on LenDale White, drafted Santonio Holmes, and didn't foolishly throw a good draft pick (next year's third-rounder) after bad (2005's fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-rounders) in an attempt to acquire T.J. Duckett to shore up the short-yardage running game. Duckett currently sports the Duce Staley Fall Fashion Line (either Fall 2005 or Fall 2006; take your pick) on Sundays and Davenport, who the Steelers signed for peanuts, is more than adequate. None of this ancillary good fortune changes the immediate backfield problems, but maybe these issues aren't just confined to the running backs.

In looking forward to the second half of the 2006 season with an eye towards the April draft -- even if we don't yet want to admit it -- here's a question I've been throwing around the last few Sunday afternoons: When, exactly, did the Steelers' offensive line turn into the Arizona Cardinals? And yes, I'm staring at you Max Starks. Can the biggest problems in the running game be traced back to the inconsistencies along the offensive line, or is it something else ... something we've overlooked?

Against the Dolphins in the season opener, everything seemed fine; and I assured myself that the Jacksonville and San Diego games resulted from playing two All-Pro defensive lines in back-to-back weeks. The Bengals and Chiefs game reassured me of as much, but after three straight weeks of ineptitude, I'm pretty sure that statement is no longer operative.

In my mind, the problem is two-fold: First, in recent years Pittsburgh has never been a great pass-blocking team. In retrospect, it may have seemed like this group was a decent pass-blocking unit, but much of that has to do with surging to huge first-half leads and primarily running the ball for the final 30 minutes. For a quick refresher on the Steelers pass-protection woes, just think back to any game during the 2003 season.

Since 2002, the offensive line has finished no higher than 14th in the league in adjusted sack rate (ASR), a statistic that takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on yards gained. And while some of that has to do with the quarterback (insert Tommy Maddox joke here), obviously, the offensive line plays a pretty big part too.

Second, under Cowher this team's identity has always been smash-mouth, run-first, pass later. (except for that well-documented 2003 abortion -- and aberration -- of a season.) With Ben Roethlisberger's health -- and judgment -- changing weekly, opponents game-planned to stop the run first and worry about the pass later. The Falcons sold out the run and while they kept Willie Parker in check, Roethlisberger (and later Batch) torched them through the air all day long. Loud-mouthed dirtbag DeAngelo Hall has the tread marks to prove it.

A week later, the Raiders took the same approach, and a punch-drunk Big Ben threw the ball all over the yard like he had just been blindfolded, spun around, given a stick, and was told to hit the piñata. With that visual, four-interceptions -- including two picks-for-six -- seem predictable.

But here's the thing: opposing defenses have always focused on stopping the run. It's been that way ... well, forever. Why are the results so different this year than in 2005 when Pittsburgh's offensive line is virtually unchanged? And what about 2004? Big Ben was a rookie, right? Weren't teams going to make the new guy beat them, instead of Duce and later the Bus?

Going back to 2002 here's how the Steelers offensive line has stacked up against the rest of the league (ALY or Adjusted Line Yards, Stuffs, and ASR are all explained here; Stuffs conversion percentage and sacks are in parentheses):

Year      ALY      Stuffs     ASR 
2002      23rd     7th(22%)   14th(35) 
2003      26th    27th(28%)   23rd(43) 
2004       4th     9th(22%)   28th(36) 
2005      12th     9th(23%)   23rd(32) 
2006      25th    18th(25%)   23rd(22)  
Even with a rookie quarterback, I think the table makes it clear why the Steelers were so successful in 2004: the offensive line dominated in the run game and the running backs avoided putting Roethlisberger in a lot of long-yardage situations. Lost in all of this was the fact that the offensive line was one of the worst pass-blocking units in the league. It's also worth noting that Staley looked great in his first seven games, and when he missed time with an injury, Bettis basically put the team on his back for the rest of the season.

In 2005, while Staley was staking out his game-day patch-of-grass along the sidelines (appropriate dress -- gray sweats -- required), Bettis became the elder statesman/mentor/short-yardage back and Willie Parker graduated to starter. Also gone were two important cogs in the o-line machinery, RT Oliver Ross and RG Keydrick Vincent. In there place second-year player Max Starks and former first-rounder Kendall Simmons, who was returning from a serious knee injury.

Swapping Parker for Staley and replacing the right side of the offensive line had little effect on the Steelers' running attack. And while the pass protection improved from the year before, it still ranked in the bottom third of the league. As long as the running game was clicking, none of that mattered.

This season is a different story, however. With Bettis gone and his replacements either injured or too tubby -- and let's be honest, your career as a professional athlete is over when people start referring to you as "Jerome Bettis's fat replacement" -- Parker has, at times, struggled. And because one is dependant on the other, the offensive line has struggled too.

So what gives? Did Jerome Bettis make that big of a difference? I mean, every other offensive starter returned from the Super Bowl team, so that must be it, right?

I'm not ready to go quite that far. I will admit that I underestimated how important the Bus was to this team. Not enough to entertain the idea of drafting LenDale White, but I certainly have a greater appreciation for the toughness Bettis brought to the running game. In 2004 and 2005, even when defenses knew Pittsburgh was going to run the ball, Bettis managed to pick up tough yards, kept the chains -- and the clock -- moving, and made Cowher's, Whisenhunt's and Big Ben's jobs all easier. Sometimes overlooked, another big part of Bettis's game was the physical toll he exacted on opposing defenses. Teams might tackle the Bus for no gain, but it came at a cost. And if he got a head of steam and a defensive back had to make a play seven or eight yards down the field, well, forget about it. Better tell the trainers to keep that John Deere mobile stretcher/lawnmower running, because they're going to need it.

But those are just memories at this point. I mean, this seems like it happened a decade ago. But enough with the whining. Dwelling on the past doesn't change the fact that the Steelers are 2-6. To paraphrase Rick Pitino: Jerome Bettis ain't walking through Pittsburgh's clubhouse door. And it's not just the loss of Bettis.

If anything, it's been a confluence of things in addition to the Bus's retirement: a below-average offensive line, the special teams follies, injuries – especially those of the off-field, off-season variety – and, oh yeah, the turnovers. Turnovers might have a little something to do with Pittsburgh's current predicament.

Still, I can't help but take a peek into the past. If nothing else, it helps take my mind of the present.


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