If the Steelers had any questions heading into this season they concerned the play at RG, how well ILB James Farrior would do in the place of departed Earl Holmes, and if PK Todd Peterson could be any worse than Kris Brown. Farrior went a long way to addressing his burning question by tearing it up against the Browns. Rookie RG Kendall Simmons has been serviceable and Peterson has been… well, two out of three isn't bad. If we knew then what we know now about these questions, might we have been even more optimistic about the Steelers?
The hope of 2002 rested on the success of 2001. The problem is, the success of 2001 is nowhere to be seen. QB Kordell Stewart is not playing like the 2001 MVP. In fact, he's no longer even the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh. The offensive line dominated almost every opponent last season and just about any Steeler running back moved the ball at will. Right now, the Steelers would be happy to move the ball two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The defense was the best in the NFL and allowed an average of only 13 points per game. Tack on a touchdown plus another point per game in 2002.
Who is this team anyway?
These are not your 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers and that may be the best news we have heard during an otherwise disappointing season.
The offense might be the most shocking change of all. A deep stable of running backs and powerful offensive line have given way to a talented receiving corps and a quick release pocket passer. A short gainer from Verron Haynes followed by a pass over the middle to Antwaan Randle El from Tommy Maddox. Who in their right mind could have even dreamed up such a series of plays last February?
And on defense? How about Deshea Townsend replacing Lee Flowers at safety? Larry Foote starting along side of James Farrior? Casey Hampton rendered irrelevant along with stopping the run? Joey Porter leading the NFL in interceptions? Certainly, the start of the 2002 season has been bizarre to say the least (e.g. the 0-4 Rams). But Pittsburgh is barely recognizable in the face of an exceptional lack of personnel turnover.
The 2002 Pittsburgh Steelers look more like the… 2001 New England Patriots than the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers. Okay, that may be stretch, particularly since the Pats were hardly a 2001 preseason favorite. The quarterback parallels (including those with the 1999 Rams and 2000 Ravens) have already been overplayed. What I am talking about is bending not breaking. Poor offensive and defensive statistics, but a strong win/loss record.
I am talking about the red zone.
There was nothing remarkable about the 2001 New England Patriots in terms of offensive or defensive rankings. Well, except in one category, the red zone. The Pats may not have visited inside the 20 all that often last season, but when they did they scored touchdowns. And as for the defense, the opposition would move the ball all day in between the 20s. But once the enemy got inside the red zone, the Pats defense clamped down and the result was often 3 instead of 6.
Little mystery that the 2001 Steelers were the anti-Patriots. As good as the Patriots were in the red zone the Steelers were as bad. The story couldn't be more different in 2002. The Steelers have scored or attempted to score on eight occasion inside the 20. 50% of those scoring attempts resulted in touchdowns, 3 of them being through the air. In fact, the Steelers as a team sport a 104.5 passer rating inside the red zone.
What about defensively? The opposing team's passer rating through three game against the Steelers is 36.5. There have been 5 field goals against just two touchdowns (1 on the ground and 1 through the air). And as much as the Steelers have struggled on the ground, the opposition has been worse.
Does that sound like a recipe for the Super Bowl? Well, slow down there for just a moment. One thing the 2001 Patriots have over the 2002 Steelers, excellent play at special teams. All the other pieces seem to be coming together, even if in a very unexpected fashion.
I supposed some of you are still screaming about a coaching difference, but I believe the crew in Pittsburgh is just as talented as the one in Boston. Cowher should unleash his staff and relegate himself to fixing special teams.
So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Steelers Achilles heel remains special teams. However, for all the woes on special teams, they may have won the game against the Browns. That was still Peterson kicking the winning field goal. And that was still Kimo Von Oelhoffen blocking the Browns potential winning kick earlier in overtime. The Steelers now have legitimate return threats and if they can keep Peterson from kicking off out of bounds, the Steelers may start talking special teams advantage.
There are a few rays of hope at 1-2, but the budding QB controversy only serves to obscure the pressing issues on special teams. The Steelers road to San Diego is still filled with the potholes of special teams' gaffes.