It wasn't pretty, but it was a win

After two demoralizing losses, the Steelers get back in the win column with a victory over the hapless Rams. There is reason for optimism, but the team has more questions than answers with just one game to go.

It wasn't pretty, but it was a win It counts. A win is a win, and when the Pittsburgh Steelers are "battling" the Cleveland Freaking Browns for the division title, there's no time for haughtiness. If anything, this week's message heading into the season finale against the team formerly known as the Baltimore Ravens should be: "What it means to be humble: never take anything for granted." It's not especially catchy, but it is pertinent given how the last three games have unfolded.

It's clear to me that this isn't the same team that won the 2005 Super Bowl, even though the records are identical through 16 weeks of regular-season football. In '05, Pittsburgh sputtered to a 7-5 record before reeling off eight straight; this season's the team was 7-2 before going 3-3 over the last seven games. There are plenty of reasons to explain the letdown -- injuries, questionable play-calling, opponent, and … injuries. But -- and I can't believe I'm writing this -- it took the NFL Network's Sterling Sharpe to make this point during the Steelers-Rams pregame show before it dawned on me as absurdly obvious: Mike Tomlin came out of the gates 3-0, and that sent expectations sky-rocketing, fairly or not. A subsequent 7-5 record has much of Steeler Nation on the familiar late-season ledge, and everything is deserving of eagle-eyed criticism. If this year's team had started 0-3 and landed at 10-6, we'd all be high-fivin' and making plans for Arizona because the Steelers were peaking at exactly the right moment.

Sure, there's something to be said for momentum, but 10-6 is 10-6. Pittsburgh's lack of consistency has been worthy of fan derision, but they have also suffered from a schedule backloaded with legit playoff teams. It's not an excuse -- the road to the Super Bowl isn't paved with the 49ers and Rams -- but the perspective of an entire fan base would be markedly different if the Steelers' schedule had been flip-flopped.

When Pittsburgh hosted Jacksonville or traveled to St. Louis explains the sudden collapse of the defense, however. It's a troubling development, especially at this point in the season, but I don't think it's unfixable. Former Steelers cornerback and current NFL Networker Rod Woodson echoed what most of us just assumed: there's nothing you can throw at Dick LeBeau that he hasn't seen before. Woodson says LeBeau has thousands of blitzes that haven't even seen the light of day, and he only breaks out two or three new ones each week. That makes me feel better about the game not passing the 70-year-old defensive coordinator by like he's Joe Gibbs, but the results on the field have left me apoplectic the last three weeks.

One complaint is that the cornerbacks aren't very physical with wideouts at the line of scrimmage. If there was ever a time to manhandle a receivers corps it was against the Patriots three weeks ago. Tyrone Carter told us that Randy Moss wasn't a big fan of getting punched in the mouth, and although no one verbalized it, I suspect the same holds for Dante' Stallworth. Wes Welker makes his living in the middle of the field on short timing routes. If there's a better candidate deserving a chuck I don't know who he is. So what does the Steelers' secondary do? Nothing. Same ol' same ol': large cushions, or press coverage sans chuck.

And we saw the same thing Thursday night against two of the NFL's best, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Which explains why quarterback Marc Bulger had some success the on the same quick slants the Patriots offense used to march up and down the field against the Steelers. But here's the deal (from my layman's viewpoint, anyway): LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme requires a safety net behind all the confusion-creating goings on near the line of scrimmage. Simply put, that means the secondary can't get beat deep. This is a lesson everybody but Anthony Smith and fans seemed to grasp back in training camp.

Football is about trade-offs, and for the Steelers' defense it comes down to confusing the quarterback with different looks on nearly every snap, forcing the offense to sustain 15-play drives in order to score, all while not giving up the big play. To do that, Pittsburgh willingly concedes the underneath passing routes, eschewing press coverage and at-the-line chucking. Obviously, there are breakdowns; we saw it in the 2005 Monday night game against the Colts, and Smith has unassumingly starred in the "How not to defend the deep pass in the Steelers' zone-blitzing scheme" video that's sure to become a minicamp training video staple. But for the most part, it's hard to argue with LeBeau's results.

I don't know if that makes anybody feel better about the last three weeks, particularly LeBeau's seeming inability to make in-game adjustments, or the defense's sudden ineptitude when it comes to tackling. And the New England game aside, I think that's been this team's biggest problem: tackling. The Steelers win the Jaguars game if they don't miss 50 tackles. The Rams don't put up 24 points if the Steelers don't miss another 50 tackles. I know, I know, the other guys get paid too. The last time I heard a Pittsburgh player utter that phrase it was Amos Zereoue during the 2003 season. My response: excuses are for losers.

So great, we now have a better idea why the defense does what it does, but if the problems we've seen over the last month persist, we'll be turning our focus to free agency and the draft in about two weeks time. I don't think Richard LeBeau will let it come to that.

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I've beaten the "Pittsburgh's offensive line is an affront to humanity" drum for most of the season, but I actually saw reasons for optimism against St. Louis. Is the Rams defense the Jags, Patriots, or, hell, even the Browns? Uh, no. But the Steelers' o-line will take moral victories at this point in the proceedings. And they got more than that on Thursday night.

After Aaron Smith landed on injured reserve, my first thought turned to how the Bengals manhandled Smith's replacement, Nick Eason. Travis Kirshke fared better, but was completely overmatched in the Jacksonville game. My second thought was how things might be different if Pittsburgh had been in position to draft Nebraska's Adam Carriker. He could provide the type of depth that would lessen Smith's loss. Or so I thought. I actually watched 60 minutes of football, and another half-hour of the post-game show before realizing that Carriker played for the Rams. (And I made a mental note earlier in the week to watch the guy.)

So I replayed the first half on Friday night to a) see what Carriker was up to, and b) to add more ammunition to the "the Steelers are the worst offensive line to ever take the field" kick I've been on for four months now. Well, Carriker might as well have called in sick, because he was as much a factor in that game as Brian St. Pierre. The 13th-overall pick spent the evening getting his ass handed to him by every member of the Steelers offensive line with the notable exception of center Sean Mahan. Willie Colon expended more energy breaking the huddle than he did rag-dolling Carriker five yards off the ball. And the results were the same when Carriker lined up over Faneca. Hell, even Kendall Simmons got in on the fun. I mention this for two reasons: first, in the months and weeks leading up to the draft, Carriker was one of those can't-miss prospects. The anti-Lawrence Timmons, if you will. Sixteen weeks later, that perspective has shifted. Second, and more important, Pittsburgh's offense line was quietly efficient, controlling the line of scrimmage, and much better in pass protection than I was originally willing to give them credit for immediately after the game.

Everybody understands that Ben Roethlisberger is just as responsible for sacks as the o-line, and that was the case several times against the Rams. The unit's biggest weakness, by millions of miles, is Mahan. He was getting so routinely abused that I started to feel sorry for him. I've never seen an NFL player so overmatched on a regular basis. I've spent a lot of time lamenting the fact that the Steelers spent all that dough to re-sign Kendall Simmons, but he's the least of the o-line's worries. It looks like Alan Faneca is out the door, so there's a hole at left guard, but assuming Marvel Smith gets healthy over the off-season, and Colon continues to progress, Pittsburgh's offensive-line wretchedness might not be as bad as originally thought. And Max Starks is making a strong case for a new contract, which is something I never thought I'd write.

Could it be the case that Pittsburgh's o-line just needs a little tweaking? Assuming Faneca isn't coming back, can I readjust my preliminary draft board to be a guard in the first round, the best available center a round later, and then all special teamers? (I originally had the Steelers drafting only offensive linemen.) However this plays out between now and late April, one thing's for certain: Mahan CAN NOT be the center next season. No way. He's proven that it only takes one guy to ruin things for the 10 others. Mahan is a bigger liability than a one-armed Tommy Maddox in a windstorm. If he can play guard, swell, but I won't get my hopes up. Pittsburgh signed him for backup money, so if that's his lot, fine. There's certainly nothing the Steelers can do about it now, but my only hope is that Mahan doesn't get Big Ben killed these next few weeks. Otherwise, I'll be making more changes to my draft board. One that could include the team drafting another quarterback.

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