We're a week into this thing and it seems as if the football gods are already conspiring against the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers. Forget for the moment that the league stuck the defending AFC North champs with the toughest schedule in the history of organized athletics, but the loss of punter Daniel Sepulveda coupled with a roster full of nagging injuries -- including a particularly balky hammy belonging to Troy Polamalu -- and all the offseason optimism gets knocked out of you like a Bart Scott murder attempt on Ben Roethlisberger. On the upside, only 36 weeks until the 2009 NFL draft!
Actually, if the Steelers' biggest issue heading into the season is that they lost a punter, they're getting off light (and I'm the guy whose claim to fame is building the ROBO-PUNTER bandwagon); the Ravens currently have more injured left tackles than healthy ones, and Ed Reed's sore shoulder hasn't allowed him to practice. In Cincinnati, Chad Johnson is recovering from double ankle surgery and their next healthy running back will be their first. The Browns continue their elusive search for a cornerback, Joe Jurevicius is out indefinitely, and Donte' Stallworth is coming back from a tweaked hamstring. So while it's easy to bellyache about the Steelers' lot, three other teams in the division have it much worse
And, really, all that matters are those three other teams. Yes, the schedule is a bear, but how many times do the 13 names on the docket look much more formidable in May than they do in, say, October, once the season gets going? If there's ever a time to be brainwashed by advertisers, it's now. And it's this advertisement. Sure, "Believe in Now" is hackneyed, but it's a great way to approach the season when the season is five days old. This will be my approach, at least until Big Ben suffers a career-ending injury and the Steelers end up sending a first-day pick to Arizona to have Brian St. Pierre assume his rightful place under center and lead Pittsburgh to a six-win campaign and a top-10 pick. At that point, I think it's perfectly acceptable to panic like you're standing on the deck of the Titanic without a lifeboat.
In the meantime, Pittsburgh has plenty to be excited about. The team will feature the highest paid backup in the league, tackle Max Starks, but at least four of the starting five are set. A year ago, the o-line was a mess, center Jeff Hartings had just retired, and LarryZierlein was hired to shore up a unit that surrendered 49 sacks in 2006. The good news: Roethlisberger only went down 47 times a year ago, but, yeah, it's still FORTY-SEVEN. Pittsburgh still hasn't settled on a center, but Marvel Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, Kendall Simmons and Willie Colon are all penciled in atop the depth chart. Swap out Kemoeatu for Alan Faneca and it's the same cast of characters responsible for the carnage we were forced to watch the last two seasons. But at the start of camp, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians made an interesting admission about the offensive line:
Offensive line was responsible for probably 30 sacks, and I'm just throwing that out as a round number. There might've been 15 where the quarterback was trying to create plays. And I'm not going to stop that. But there were four or five by running backs, four or five by tight ends. It's a blocking unit. It's a receiver missing a hot or a quarterback missing a hot.
We've heard variations of this explanations from various sources, but never Arians and never with such specificity. I think most of us are willing to put up with Roethlisberger taking a few sacks if it means a lot more big plays. Assuming Big Ben is responsible for 15 to 20 sacks a season, it's up to everybody else -- o-line, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers -- to do their part. Is it insane to think the Steelers could surrender something less than 35 sacks? (That would've been good for 16th in the league in '07; I don't think it's asking too much to be just mediocre. We'll see.) The next few weeks are just as much about finding the five best fat guys to protect Roethlisberger as it is making sure every other offensive player knows their situational responsibilities. Head coach Mike Tomlin likes to eschew all the high-level pontificating for keeping things simple. This seems like the perfect example: know your job and execute.
Sounds easy enough until to hear that Anthony Smith is apparently incapable of such direction. Thing is, I was the guy who thought Smith would learn from his mistakes, particularly those that involved Dick LeBeau ripping him a new one. Nope. At this point, his shtick is so unfunny that when I heard John Lynch had decided to leave Denver my first reaction was, hey, maybe the Steelers will sign him. I know, he's a strong safety, but so what? Smith is a free safety in name only; I mean, we could call him a nose tackle and it wouldn't keep him from getting beat deep a few times a game. I realize that Lynch doesn't solve any of Pittsburgh's secondary problems, but Ryan Clark sure does. I don't know if I've ever been happier for a player to be healthy. Partly for selfish reasons, but also because he seems like a swell dude who got a raw deal.
And although I get Tomlin's thinking heading into last year's training camp -- let Clark and Smith battle for the job with the understanding that Smith was the favorite -- I couldn't be happier to have Clark healthy for 2008. (By the way, is there anybody left pimping Smith over Clark? No? Good.) In case you're wondering, yes, I'm still very bitter about this. Thanks, Anthony.
Looking at the larger picture, Smith hardly registers; the Steelers will have a bunch of questions next offseason, but for now, they are a young team with more offensive weapons than they know what to do with. The defense is aging, but you know what, we've been saying that about the Patriots for, what, four years now? These are all good problems to have. Plus, losing Sepulveda for the year has a silver lining: those media members in the anti-draft-a-punter camp will have to find something else to talk about, which is always nice. One more thing: Casey Hampton will be fine. Yes, 360 is heavy, even for him, but, you know, he's been fat for a while now. Unless Tomlin plans on having him return kicks, which might not be a completely insane idea, this will all be forgotten as soon as he's activated off the PUP list.
Early camp injuries shouldn't be a problem
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