"This year," Bill Cowher reflected on the season, "our coaching staff worked extremely hard. They worked through a lot of the high expectations and adjustments we had to make throughout the year and I'm proud of each and every one of them. As that relates to our players, they did everything that was asked of them… I couldn't ask them to do any more than they did. We fell short this year and that falls totally on me."
Like many things Cowher said this season, that is not entirely the case. The shortcomings of 2002 will not fall on the head coach, it will fall on the players. As a result, there will be some new faces when the season starts next September and not one of them will replace Bill's.
While Cowher was praising his players and his coaching staff, he also acknowledged that there is work to be done. What will be done during the off-season? Cowher listed a few of the larger issues and provided us with a glimpse into the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The first order of business should come of no surprise to anyone paying attention to the NFL this season. The Steelers suffered through major defensive lapses and beyond the run defense this is a good unit gone bad. Cowher cited two main issues that need to be addressed: Facing empty backfields sets (the spread) and defending on 3rd down. These problems led to eight games in which the Steelers had to score 30 or more points to win.
Cowher did talk about the offense as well. He started by pointing out the problems of the running game. Yet, his comments were contradictory and the packaging of Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis into the same sentence on a few occasions was very telling. The ball-control era of Slash and the Bus has come to pass, literally. The other two projects he brought were scoring in the red zone and 3rd down efficiency. However, scoring was not really a problem. Turnovers were and perhaps the ability to hold onto the ball in the 4th quarter.
How will Cowher address these weaknesses? Though he did not offer many details, he was fairly explicit (intentional Cowherism).
"I think we have to sit back and look at what we're doing and who we're doing it with," said Cowher.
What coach means is that the staff will look at the schemes employed and how the players performed. Did they really do everything asked of them? If they did, the scheme will have to change. However, Cowher really does not know yet if his players did what they were asked to do.
"Once you get into the off-season, once you get into free agency and preparing for the draft, we always try to take a morning where we break down what we did offensively and defensively in cutups," Cowher explained. "We'll look at individual players and we'll rank them. We'll rank them after looking at all the cutups at the end of the year because sometimes it's tough to get a true sense of how a guy played until you look at all the cutups."
This process is how Earl Holmes ended up in Cleveland and why the Steelers won't re-sign Lee Flowers. Cowher's staff will methodically figure out who has been naughty and who has been nice. There will be holes to fill or some sort of schematic change as a result of these rankings.
"We try to look at some of the teams who do very well in those areas [Steeler weaknesses] and you try to break down how they do it that maybe you can apply to what you're doing," Cowher described the second part of the off-season project formulation.
What teams will Cowher look at? This is where a change in scheme might come into play. The Ravens run a 3-4 defense. How come teams didn't spread the field on them? Of course, the answer to that question may be one of personnel.
Brother can you spare a dime?
No news here, the dime defense is the scapegoat for an unrealized Super Bowl appearance. The 3rd down defense is a fairly good indicator how a team runs a dime, but the goal is to get the defense off of the field. 3rd and short or 3rd and long, it really does not matter. Other than turnovers, there is not a more important defensive statistic than the 3rd down conversion rate. In the case of the playoff game against the Titans, this stat was even more important than turnover differential.
The Philadelphia Eagles are the best at getting off the field on third down. Other teams that stand out are Carolina, Tampa Bay, Miami, and Green Bay. However, these teams run a different scheme than the Steelers. Given the Steelers success against the run, they are not likely to throw out their 3-4 defense and start searching for a lot of different personnel. The Steelers are already locked into their scheme thanks to contract extensions.
Houston, Baltimore, Atlanta, and New England are all teams that employ a defensive scheme that the Steelers could mimic. The Texans are the best of this lot and the Patriots are the worst, almost as bad as the Steelers. Houston is a curious tale. They didn't rack up the sacks in 2002 nor did they garner a slew of interceptions. What they did well was force incomplete passes. The other part of the success equation is good tackling. The Steelers did not tackle very well after the catch was made. The Eagles put on a tackling clinic in their secondary each and every week
When the Steelers are ranking their players, they will pay close attention to coverage and tackling. What the Steelers lack are defensive backs, and even linebackers, that can do both well. Kendrell Bell showed some flashes of coverage ability against the Browns and that was on a hobbled ankle. Clearly, the Steelers need to help him with his coverage skills and find a way to keep him on the field in the dime.
However, looking more closely at the Texans third-down defense, the story is the starting cornerbacks. Houston will be looking to upgrade the safety position and shore up their depth. Yet, Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman were the men behind the Texans relative success. Glenn is a smart veteran who still has the skills to be left on an island. He certainly made Tommy Maddox look like he belonged back in the XFL. Coleman is 6'2" and about 210 pounds. He gets very physical with receivers and throws off the timing of the QB that way.
Is the draft the way to find these kind of cover guys? Coleman and Glenn came to Houston with NFL experience. The Steelers might be better served by sifting through free agency. Chris McAlister and Dre' Bly stand out in this crop. Both are relatively young. McAlister has the better size and he was drafted to survive on an island. Currently, he's disappointed how he has been treated in Baltimore, but the Ravens will not let McAlister leave town if they can help it. Bly still has a nice upside, but his size is a question.
In short, the crop of free agents is not all that attractive. That, unfortunately, leaves the draft. What the Steelers should chase is a big corner back who might fall a bit because a lack of marquee speed. Nate Clements and Gary Baxter are two CBs drafted in 2001 who have quickly emerged. Baxter is the more interesting of the two. He's almost as big as Coleman and was projected more as a safety (similar to Chad Scott). Baltimore picked up Baxter at the end of the second round and played him mostly at the CB position this year. Nonetheless, the Ravens are mulling over moving Baxter back to safety.
The guy out there that best meets this criteria is Oregon State's Dennis Weathersby. At 6'2" and over 200 pounds, he has the size desired. The Steelers could easily grab him late in the first round. Another possibility is Marcus Trufant out of Washington State. He's a bit smaller than Weathersby, but he has demonstrated that he is not shy about tackling.
Of course, the Steelers could look at safety. There are a few players at this position that could be converted to corners, but that is more of a project approach. Volunteer Julian Battle and NC State's Terrence Holt are worth a look on this count. Both combine speed and size with the tackling experience that safeties bring to the NFL. I'd rank Battle as the better of the two in terms of making the transition to cornerback. Either of them would make a great addition to special teams.
Simply put, the Steelers need to get more physical in their secondary. When Bell and Hampton trot off the field in the dime, the Steelers seem a much more timid team. The Steelers need another hitter out there who can cover. The right player in this year's draft will make all the difference. The Steelers are just one player away from fielding a Super Bowl defense.
Offensively, the Steelers are cutting bait with Stewart and Bettis. What is left is a great receiving corps, a quarterback who can distribute the ball quickly, and a deep offensive line. The Steelers will have to take a long look at the tackles available, but they won't really be looking for a starter. The Steelers might even be set at running back with Fu, Amos, and Verron. The Steelers could chase a few of the second day wonders such as Quentin Griffen out of Oklahoma or they could nab another Bulldog in Musa Smith.
What the Steelers really could use is another tight end. Mark Bruener has been injury prone the last two seasons. With questions at tackle, the Steelers will be back to looking for a blocking tight end. How about Gary Godsey from Notre Dame? He has played quarterback.
Really, what the Steelers need is a short-yardage specialist at running back to help in the red zone. If Haynes could emerge as that guy, that would be perfect. The Steelers could address this weakness though the draft with a bruising running back and that blocking tight end.
Besides the concerns about special teams, there you have the Steelers off-season in a nutshell. They need a much more physical secondary, particularly in the dime package, and a better short-yardage running game. This is likely to be accomplished through the draft, particularly in the defensive backfield. Keep an eye on Haynes and see how he grades out. Even with Flowers leaving, there will be a logjam at safety. And with the likelihood of Mike Mularkey returning to the fold, the AFC North better watch out again in 2003.