When things go like they have for the Steelers this season, the natural reaction is to overreact. "Clean house and start over!" "Fire everybody!" "Get players who have heart!" These are all variations on a common theme this time of year. Yeah, it might make you feel better to rip off a similarly-themed diatribe, but other than lowering your blood pressure in the short term, it probably won't do much good. If anything, it might just put off those Steelers-inspired health problems into the not-to-distant future.
For some perspective, think about this: From 2001-2005, Pittsburgh finished, on average, 9th in the league in team efficiency (11th on offense, 7th on defense, 15th on special teams). And following each not-so-good season (2000, 2003) the Steelers rebounded to not only make the playoffs, but earn home-field advantage and play in the AFC Conference Championship games.
Sure, we're all aware of Pittsburgh's recent history of staying competitive, but the real question is how much turnover did the team face from one year to the next, especially following a mediocre season?
Prior to the 2001 season the Steelers re-signed: Jerome Bettis, Will Blackwell, John Fiala, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Jason Simmons, Deshea Townsend, Hines Ward and Jon Witman. They chose to not re-sign/released Mike Vrabel, Courtney Hawkins, Bobby Shaw, Dermontti Dawson, Kevin Henry, Richard Huntley, Levon Kirkland and Scott Shields. That April, the team drafted: Casey Hampton, Kendrell Bell, Mathias Nkwenti, Chukky Okobi, Rodney Bailey, Roger Knight and Chris Taylor. They also signed the following free agents: Jeff Hartings, Mike Jones, Tommy Maddox and Mike Logan.
Of the free agents, Jeff Hartings and Mike Logan are still with the team and Hartings has made the biggest contribution (followed, probably, by Maddox).
So after a 9-7 season that included an 0-3 start Pittsburgh re-signed two big contributors (Bettis and Ward), drafted one starter (Hampton) and signed another via free agency. At the time, I don't remember a lot of people having high hopes for this team, but in retrospect, a little tweaking went a long way.
Following the disaster that was the 2003 season, here's how the Steelers re-stocked the roster:
Of those re-signed, only Clark Haggans and Dan Kreider were opening-day starters. The draft would yield two more eventual starters (Big Ben, obviously, was the beneficiary of Tommy Maddox's Week 2 elbow injury; Starks didn't graduate to full-time duty until the 2005 season); and a nickel/dime defensive back (I refuse to list him as a returner). Via free agency, the team added a starting running back and punter, and added depth along the o-line, d-line and in the secondary.
Heading into training camp, Staley was the only significant change to the starting lineup. Sure, the team stocked the roster during the off-season, but not much changed in the overall makeup of the team. Making 2004 even more incredible, the Steelers lost starting right guard Kendall Simmons for the season to a knee injury and the right side of the line consisted of thought-to-be retreads, Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross.
So what does all of this mean for the 2007 Steelers? First, I think these two examples emphasize the importance of not overreacting. Yes, Pittsburgh's had a dreadful season to date, and even if they win out there is no denying this team's shortcomings – namely special teams, the defensive backfield, spotty offensive line play and turnovers. But instead of blowing up the roster and starting over – which virtually guarantees a two- or three-year rebuilding process – smaller, more targeted changes might make more sense.
In 2003, Pittsburgh was 26th in the league in run-blocking. This is due primarily to a slew of injuries along the offensive line, losing Wayne Gandy in free agency, and the failed Tommy Maddox Passing Project. Together, these three events created the perfect storm of an abominable run offense.
In 2004, the Steelers' o-line got healthy (except for the aforementioned Simmons), and maybe more importantly, they re-committed to running the ball. Pittsburgh finished the season ranked 4th in run-blocking. The fact that the right side of the line was, well, makeshift, supports the point that coaching has just as much to do with success as ability. And a year later, with a healthy Simmons and first-year starter Starks on the right side, the unit finished 12th. Which leads me to this …
Maybe Russ Grimm lost his magic beans. It happens. Assistant coaches come into a situation with fresh ideas and a new philosophy and everything's great; a few uneven seasons later, things just aren't the same and nothing short of a time machine will change that. I don't know if this is the case with Grimm, but it's something to think about.
In addition to the coaching, it's also worth considering about how the offensive linemen can improve their run-blocking. I've written before that as the running game goes so goes the rest of the offense. Pittsburgh has never been a great pass-blocking team, so it's really no surprise that defenses are blitzing Roethlisberger silly with predictable results. Historically, to keep defenses honest the Steelers have relied on its running game. This season, in a lot of ways, is reminiscent of 2003's pass-first, ask-questions-later mentality that resulted in a whopping six wins.
And while I understand the "Replace the whole lot of them!" viewpoint, I think it's important to remember that Pittsburgh enjoyed much success with basically these same players in the previous two seasons.
Frankly, I think part of the problem is depth. When backups are pushing the starters for playing time, everybody wins. Competition breeds success and right now, the Steelers don't look to have a whole lot of competition behind the starters. Earlier this season, Chris Kemoeatu had a nice game against the Chiefs but followed that up with a ho-hum effort against the Falcons. The fact that Trai Essex or Willie Colon haven't been able to push Max Starks for playing time is telling; and through 12 weeks, only Chukky Okobi has proven that he's a starter.
This lack of depth speaks to the scouting department. Much of Pittsburgh's success can be attributed to second-day draft picks developing into quality players – both starters and backups. Since 2001, the Steelers have had 27 second-day picks and currently have three starters from that group (Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Ike Taylor) and four game-day backups (Okobi, Verron Haynes, Rian Wallace, Kemoeatu). No matter how you spin it, that's a pretty crappy rate of return on an investment.
Sure, the players aren't without blame, but I don't think they're the root of the problem, either. The first priority is to draft quality backups who have a good chance to become starters – and while they're being groomed for full-time duty, push the incumbents for playing time – and to make sure the coaching message hasn't gotten stale. If you take care of these two issues, it makes the third issue -- consistent overall effort -- a lot easier to address.
One of the common misconceptions this season is that Pittsburgh's defense lacks an adequate pass rush and that, in part, explains why the secondary has unexpectedly collapsed. Yeah, that's not what happened. In 2004 and 2005, the Steelers' defensive line ranked 6th and 3rd in adjusted sack rate (which is a measure of sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down, and distance) while the pass defense ranked 3rd and 6th. This season, Pittsburgh ranks 10th in adjusted sack rate and 16th in pass defense. So what gives?
Honestly, I have no idea. I think a lot of it has to do with offenses finally catching up to Dick LeBeau's scheme, players being out of place to make plays, injuries and bad luck. That said, cleaning house should be a non-starter. Just like the offense, I think adding quality depth should be the chief concern.
The defensive line is arguably the best unit on the team, and behind the starters, Hoke and Kirshke have played well. The linebackers could use an infusion of youth and this position certainly deserves first-day-draft consideration. Although I'm preaching the importance of making small changes, which are supplemented by improved depth, linebacker is a position where finding a starter sooner rather than later is essential.
Between Joey Porter's potential contract situation, age amongst the starters, and depth issues, the strongest part of this defense, historically, could quickly turn into its biggest liability.
In the secondary, the only change from 2005 is Ryan Clark, who has seamlessly replaced Chris Hope. It's hard to argue that Ike Taylor has had anything but a forgettable year, and Bryant McFadden has followed up a solid rookie campaign with an inconsistent sophomore season. Still, this is basically the same group who excelled in 2004 and 2005. And unless you're willing to concede that Willie Williams is the difference, I'm not sure that how reshuffling the lineup would accomplish much.
Ideally, Taylor and Bryant McFadden will earn starting jobs next season, but hopefully a fully-healthy Colclough will also push for playing time. Townsend, along with every other Steelers' defensive back, has struggled this season, but I still think he's valuable in nickel packages. Nonetheless, adding quality depth is paramount; you can never have too many good cornerbacks, and just like the linebackers, finding a soon-to-be starter – instead of somebody who might graduate into the starting lineup in three or four years – should be a priority.
I've suggested several times this season that Cowher should fire special teams coach Kevin Spencer if for no other reason than to send a message to the rest of the team that such silliness won't be tolerated. I was half-kidding when I wrote that (which, I guess, means I was also half-serious), but after looking at Pittsburgh's special teams rankings since Spencer arrived, I've concluded that maybe it's not just him. Through a combination of former special teamers becoming starters, injuries and 53-man-roster casualties, Spencer really hasn't had a whole lot to work with.
He replaced the very replaceable Jay Hayes following the 2002 season. (In 2002, Pittsburgh finished 28th in the league in the five special teams categories – field goals/extra points, kick-offs, kick returns, punts and punt returns – and they finished 26th in 2001.) From 2003 to 2005, the Steelers ranked 3rd, 10th and 9th, respectively in special teams.
I've made the case above that coaching has more to do with a team's success than personnel, but in this instance it doesn't hold. For the most part, special teams doesn't include offensive or defensive starters. Coupled with injures to guys like James Harrison, Arnold Harrison and Willie Reid, and questionable personnel decisions on Chidi Iwuoma and Andre Frazier, it's not hard to imagine why this unit has stunk. Throw in Chris Gardocki's horrifyingly atrocious season and there's your recipe for the worst special teamers in the league.
Again, I think getting healthy will fix some of these issues, but no amount of clean living will make up for Gardocki and his 20-yard specials. I fully support bringing in a new punter – even drafting one if the opportunity presents itself – because after turnovers, the coverage teams have been the second-biggest joke this season.
All of this presupposes that Bill Cowher will return. Not because I necessarily think he will, but logistically, it just makes implementing these changes easier. (Not that I think that would happen – and God help us if people start taking advice on important stuff from me … )
No matter what takes place this off-season, there is one certainty: there will be changes. The only question is how big these changes will be.