End of season Steelers obit

Jim Wexell reviews the needs of a team that needs plenty of help on defense and some common sense on offense.

Dan Dierdorf lost his Monday Night Football announcing gig because he was the master of the obvious, but Sunday even Dierdorf was oblivious to the obvious as the Miami Dolphins were finishing off a second successful drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"What a head-scratcher this football team is," Dierdorf said of the Steelers as the Dolphins lined up near the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. "I look back at that five-game losing streak ... a loss to Kansas City, a loss to Oakland, and a loss to CLEVEland, hardly the upper echelon of teams in the NFL."

Seconds later, the porous Steelers defense allowed the Dolphins their 10th point of the first quarter.

Are you WATCHING the game, Dan?

Why this Steelers team is a head-scratcher at this point in the season is a head-scratcher in itself. And that this team – bereft of defensive talent and poorly coached on offense – was expected to beat those teams is another head-scratcher.

Without Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu, the 2009 Steelers defense became the 2007 Steelers defense. It allowed 171 rushing yards to Cleveland, yet that was only the third-highest total the Browns put up in their final four games, because while no one was watching the Browns have become a physical football team.

Even Eric Mangini is bright enough to understand that a team must be physical to win in the AFC North Division. It took Marvin Lewis long enough to figure it out in Cincinnati. He now has two physical lines, a thumper of a rookie middle linebacker, a plowhorse at tailback, and, get this, a fullback on his roster to go along with legitimate receivers and cornerbacks. The Ravens have all of that, except the legitimate receivers and cornerbacks and that's why they finished second to the Bengals this season.

The Steelers? They have the best quarterback in the division and that's why they haven't fallen behind the Browns ... yet.

The Steelers went on to a real pretty win over the Dolphins on this day. They tried to hand them the game with another horrendous batch of playcalling from Bruce Arians and the typical defensive breakdowns in the secondary.

The talent on the defensive side will certainly be addressed. Yet, it wasn't last year. The knowledgeable Steelers fans saw that the team lacked depth at safety, that Tyrone Carter couldn't get it done any longer and that Ryan Mundy hadn't shown anybody anything.

Perhaps the Super Bowl clouded the minds of those making personnel decisions because they didn't add a safety after lopping off Anthony Smith late in 2008. And wouldn't you know: Troy Polamalu went down with an injury after playing one quarter of sensational football in 2009.

The safety position should be easily addressed in a draft that could include first-day underclassmen DeAndre McDaniel and Earl Thomas, and will include Reshad Jones. Players such as T.J. Ward and Barry Church, among others, will be available early in the second day.

Cornerback is another problem altogether, and one the Steelers may want to address in free agency. But, of course, we must wait and see how big the free-agent class will be, and that will depend on whether the CBA is renegotiated or not. Otherwise, it could be a wish and a prayer that unknowns Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis develop more quickly at the position than expected.

Middle linebacker and nose tackle are also question marks. James Farrior turns 35 on Wednesday. He's admitted to losing a step. While one week he's in Ray Rice's hip pocket allowing LaMarr Woodley to hit and strip Joe Flacco, the next week he's being shredded by young tight ends like Anthony Fasano.

Perhaps Lawrence Timmons can take on a bigger role in pass coverage next season, or perhaps Keyaron Fox can replace Farrior at the all-important buck position inside. Fox, entering the final year of a peculiar two-year deal, could be a stopgap for a future captain such as Brandon Spikes, who'd need to be drafted in the first round.

But the Steelers may need to draft a nose tackle in the first round, because franchising Casey Hampton will infuriate him, and giving him a four-year deal will infuriate Mike Tomlin, who believes Hampton plays better in salary-drive mode.

The alternative to Hampton is to start Chris Hoke, who'll only turn 32 in April. Hoke could mentor a first-round pick such as Brian Price, since NT Terrence Cody would only give Tomlin a new weight-watching headache and NT Dan Williams is a second-rounder.

Offensively, the problems aren't as serious. Oh, sure, the Steelers blatantly ignored a raging problem with their short-yardage running game. They only drafted a fifth-rounder to improve that problem, and did not even add a fullback to the roster. They ended up using a seventh-round tight end as their fullback, and he regressed as the season unfolded.

Not that Arians cares a whit about short-yardage or red-zone problems. His sequence of playcalling in the second quarter Sunday showed his mettle, and showed why the Rooneys want Tomlin to find a new offensive coordinator.

With a four-point lead in the second quarter, Rashard Mendenhall rumbled 26 yards with a screen pass to the Miami 6. It appeared that "Spindenhall," who'd used spin moves on 6 of his final 8 carries in the previous game, had received a good scolding prior to the Miami game. He wasn't spinning; he was finally running behind his pads and looking like the power back he's destined to become. But Mendenhall was pulled from the game on first-and-goal after the screen pass. Miami even called timeout, and came out of it to see Willie Parker still in the backfield. Mendenhall did not need a rest here; the coach needed to be a coach and make a move for a move's sake. So Parker was stuffed, and he stayed in the game for second down, even though his footwear had malfunctioned. The second-down pass was nearly intercepted by Jason Taylor, and the third-down pass intended for none other than Mewelde Moore, well short of the goal line, was broken up.

Classic Arians.

And the Steelers settled for a field goal. They got the ball back almost immediately on a turnover, and then, at the Miami 41, threw a ridiculous first-down double pass on which Santonio Holmes was intercepted. Instead of going for the kill, this offense thought it best to get cute.

Classic Arians.

But the Steelers did win the game. Miami rallied, of course, but refused to take a hand-delivered win when it threw an interception from the 13 while in tying field goal range in the final minutes.

Arians' offense put up great numbers ... in the sunshine of Miami. But back in Cleveland, where the season was lost, Arians had called 42 pass plays and only 20 runs in zero-degree weather with 30-35 mph winds gusting over 40 mph. The protective Pittsburgh media blasted the effort of the Steelers instead of Arians' ridiculous game plan as the season died on the vine.

The Steelers still need a fullback and an interior lineman or two, but those have always been easy positions to fill, nothing like the FS-CB-MLB-NT quartet looming on defense. The other position to fill should be offensive coordinator.

Does Tomlin have the courage to fire a man with whom he's won a ring? Or does he stand up to the pressures of the front office?

It should be an easy call; one that could be announced at a final press conference today.

Or, Tomlin could take the easy way out and listen to the Pittsburgh media and look at the stats, and the wins in the final three games, and the fourth-quarter playcalling that was fortunate enough to have survived the atrocious second-quarter playcalling.

It's up to him. If it were up to me, I'd say unleash hell, and Arians.


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