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Archive for March, 2011

Steelers position review - Defensive Line

March 31, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is Part 4 of our Steelers position review series.  If you haven’t read Part 1 - 3, please click the links below.

Steelers position review - Cornerbacks

Steelers position review - Safeties

Steelers position review - Linebackers

In this installment of our position-by-position review, we take a look at the defensive line.

For the most part, our review of the defensive line is going to sound like deja vu.  The Steelers had the oldest defensive line in the NFL last season.  We’ve been talking about the Steelers’ aging defensive line for years now.  And yet the team has seemed to be content to stand pat.  However, in 2010 fate intervened and forced them to make a change.

Aaron Smith has manned the left defensive end position for the Steelers since 2000 when he became a starter.  He’s been as good at that position as anyone in the league.  In fact, we’ve often said that Smith has been among the most under-rated players in the NFL.  Unfortunately, even the best players age, and Aaron Smith is no exception.

When he’s healthy, Smith is still a great player.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy very often lately.  Over the past two seasons, Aaron Smith has played in a total of  11 games (5 in 2009, 6 in 2010).  Both seasons were cut short by injuries.  In each case, the Steelers held a roster position for him for the entire season in the hopes that he’d make a comeback.  And in each case, he was unable to do so.

Smith will be 35 this season, and is scheduled to make $4.5 million.  That’s a lot of money to pay a player who hasn’t even played half of the games during each of the past 2 years.  Moreover, based on Ziggy Hood’s play last year, Aaron Smith would likely be a backup.  If the Steelers can’t work out a new deal with Smith, at a significantly lower price, his days with the Steelers are likely over.

Ziggy Hood is the reason why Smith is expendable.  The former first round draft pick stepped in when Smith went down, and the Steelers didn’t miss a beat.  In fact, the team was even more effective against the run.  And at only 24 years old, I expect to see Hood manning the position for quite some time.

In the middle of the line, we have Casey Hampton.  Hampton is one of my favorite players on the Steelers.  For a guy who looks big and intimidating, he’s as nice as they come.  But like Aaron Smith, age is catching up to Hampton.  Hampton will be 34 years old next season.

Hampton is not nearly as dominant as he once was.  His days as a Pro Bowl player are behind him, and his production has dropped considerably.  Hampton recorded only 10 tackles this season.  That’s his lowest total since 2004 when he was injured and played in only 6 games.  Moreover, he had his the lowest tackles/game average of his entire career.  He averaged fewer tackle per game than he did as a rookie.

Hampton will be back next season, but it’s time for the Steelers to draft his replacement.  They can’t afford to go another season without a young player developing behind Hampton.

Hampton’s current backup is Chris Hoke.  Hoke has been a solid backup for years now.  He’s a good locker room guy, and the team hardly misses a beat when he enters the game.  The problem is that Hoke is even older than Hampton.  Hoke will be 35 during the upcoming season.  It makes no sense to have a 34 year old starter and a 35 year old backup.

Hoke is also an unrestricted free agent.  So he will have the freedom to sign with any team that he desires.  Even if he is willing to take a significant pay cut, it may be hard for the Steelers to justify bringing him back.

On the right side of the line, we have the man with the beard, Brett Keisel.  Keisel has really come on as a player over the last 2 years.  He’s probably surpassed Aaron Smith as the Steelers’ most dominant defensive lineman.

DE Brett Keisel

Unfortunately, Keisel is also a member of the 30+ club.  Keisel will be 33 this upcoming season.  So like Smith, Hampton, and Hoke, his playing days are numbered.

Nick Eason is Keisel’s backup.  I’d love to say that Eason is 24 years old.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be true.  Eason will be 31 when the 2011 season begins.

Eason has been a solid backup for the Steelers.  Moreover, he’s not particularly expensive.  However, as with Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke, can the Steelers continue to invest in backup players who are in their 30′s?  Eason’s inexpensive contract will probably buy him another year with the Steelers.  But eventually, they have to begin grooming backup players who are in their 20′s, rather than in their 30′s.

Sunny Harris is a player who could potentially fill that role someday.  However, I’m not optimistic.  I’ve attended every day of Steelers Training Camp for the past 3 years, and I have yet to see Sunny Harris do a single thing that impressed me.  He makes as many memorable plays as Tony Hills (and that’s not good).  Harris’ age (24 years old) is a positive, but his playing ability is a negative.  Nevertheless, unless the Steelers draft a few young defensive linemen, Sunny Harris will probably continue to waste space on the Steelers’ practice field.

I have a suggestion for you, Sunny;  steroids.

Steve McClendon is an undersized 3rd string nose tackle who was brought up to the active roster due to injuries.  Need I say any more about him?

So, let’s summarize.  The Steelers have a bunch of 30-something defensive linemen who are nearing the end of their careers.  Two thirds of the starters fall into this category, and all of their primary backups.  They have only one player under 30 who gets significant playing time, and two other young backups who are not likely to make an impact in the near future.  Do you think we might see the Steelers take a defensive lineman or two in the upcoming draft?  I certainly hope so.

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Steelers position review - Linebackers

March 29, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is Part 3 of our Steelers position review series.  If you haven’t read Part 1 or 2, please click the links below.

Steelers position review - Cornerbacks

Steelers position review - Safeties

In this installment of our position-by-position review, we take a look at one of the strongest positions on the Steelers; the linebackers.

The linebackers are the playmakers in a 3-4 defense.  And the Steelers have some of the best linebackers in the NFL.

Left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is a young star.  To reflect his importance to the team, the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him.  Woodley has been one of the best bargains in the NFL over the past 3 years.  He has outplayed his contract, and I’m confident that the Steelers will ultimately work out a long-term deal with him.

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley

James Harrison is the right outside linebacker.  Despite seemingly being targeted by the NFL this season, Harrison had another excellent season.  Harrison shows no signs of slowing down.  However, Harrison will be 33 years old next season.  He’s not getting any younger, and his playing days are coming to a close.

Jason Worilds was the backup at left outside linebacker last year.  While it was only his rookie season, he showed quite a bit of promise.  The future looks bright for Mr. Worilds.

Lawrence Timmons was both a starting inside linebacker, and the backup at right outside linebacker.  Timmons had a breakout season last year.  Despite the notoriety that the two outside linebackers get, Timmons was actually the Steelers’ leading tackler this past season.  He ended the regular season with 35 more tackles than James Harrison, and 85 more than LaMarr Woodley.  In fact, he was 6th in the entire NFL in that category.  Timmons may not get the recognition that Harrison, Woodley, or Troy Polamalu get, but the kid is a budding superstar.

James Farrior was perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the entire defense.  After struggling in 2009, and looking like his best days were behind him, Farrior came back strong in 2010.  He was second on the team in total tackles, and he had an outstanding overall season.

Unfortunately, Farrior is 36 years old.  This will be his 16th season in the league.  His career is coming to an end.  He may have one or two more seasons left in him, but do we really want 38 year old players out there?

Fortunately for the Steelers, Farrior’s backup is Keyaron Fox.  Fox has been rock solid as a backup linebacker and as a special teams player.  In fact, when Farrior goes out of the game, the Steelers don’t seem to miss a beat with Fox on the field.  Fox is only 29 years old.  Moreover, he doesn’t have a lot of starts under his belt, so he should have plenty of gas left in his tank.

Some people got down on Fox this past season because he made a few costly penalties.  I’m not one of them.  Fox has never had a history of making silly penalties (unlike players like Keenan Lewis and Chris Kemoeatu).  Moreover, he’s a bargain at the salary the Steelers are paying him (approximately $800,000). Fox is a free agent, but I strongly recommend that the Steelers resign him.  It won’t cost them much to do so (probably $1 million per year), and he has proven to be dependable at the position.

The other veteran backup linebacker is Larry Foote.  The Steelers brought Foote back after he spent a couple of seasons in Siberia……errrrr, I mean Detroit.  Foote’s experience with the Lions taught him that it is a privilege to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Detroit may have been his home, but you see how quickly he came back to the Steelers.

Sadly, Foote did almost nothing to make his presence felt last season.  He will count for $2.7 million against the Steelers’ 2011 salary cap.  That may be too much to pay for an aging backup.  Keyaron Fox will make less than half that, and Stevenson Sylvester is waiting in the wings.

Stevenson Sylvester surprised everyone when he made the Steelers 2010 roster.  Not only did he show surprising ability, but he loves to play the game.  He showed that by leading the team in special teams tackles last year.  Sylvester’s presence essentially makes Larry Foote obsolete.

Despite the Steelers strength at linebacker, don’t be surprised if they take one in the upcoming draft.  James Harrison is getting older, and they don’t have an aspiring replacement for him on the roster.  Besides, you can never have too many linebackers on a 3-4 defense.  I’d bet that we’ll see a 3-4 rush linebacker taken somewhere between rounds 4-6.

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Steelers position review - Safety

March 27, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is Part 2 of our Steelers position review series.  If you haven’t read Part 1, please click the link below.

Steelers position review - Cornerbacks

We started with the cornerbacks.  In this installment, we’re going to look at the other defensive back position; the safeties.

Safety is a unique position for the Steelers.  Most fans view it as a strength.  After all, Troy Polamalu plays safety.  He’s the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  But the reality is that safety is actually a weakness for the Steelers.  And it’s a weakness that needs to be addressed.

Just think about what the team looks like when Troy is NOT in the game.  Suddenly, the safeties look just as pathetic as the cornerbacks.  Even Ryan Clark looks terrible when Troy’s not in the game.  Troy’s presence just covers up the shortcomings of the other players.  That’s why most fans (and websites) don’t list safety as a weakness for the Steelers.  But it is.  So let’s break it down.

Ryan Clark had a career year in 2010.  He had more tackles than he’s ever had in his career.  That was partially because Troy Polamalu missed games and Clark had to pick up some of the slack.  But it was also because there were so many receivers running wild in the Steelers’ defensive backfield that the cornerbacks and safeties had to make a lot of tackles.

Clark will be 32 years old next season.  That’s definitely not a good thing.  He’s much closer to the end of his career than the beginning.  He probably has 1 or two years left.  And those will likely be years in which he’s in decline.

Ryan Clark’s backup is Ryan Mundy.  This will be Mundy’s third year with the team.  During that time, he’s started a grand total of 2 games.  When he has played, he’s often been more of a liability than an asset.  Some of that was obviously due to inexperience, but does anyone feel comfortable with the idea of Mundy as a starter?  Neither do I.

Even if Mundy did look like a potential starter, he’s a free agent this year.  He’s been primarily a special teams player during his time on the team, and I don’t know if the Steelers view signing him as a priority.  They can likely get someone just as good in free agency, and can probably find a better long-term solution in the draft.

So the free safety position is going to need retooling soon.  And it’s better to do it while Ryan Clark is still with the team.  That makes it a priority in the short-term.

The backup at strong safety is Will Allen.  Like Mundy, Allen’s primary contribution has been on special teams.   2011 will be Allen’s eighth season in the NFL.  All but one of those years has been as a backup.  So it is highly unlikely that Allen is suddenly going to develop the skills needed to be a starter in the NFL.  If he had that potential, it would have shown itself 5 years ago.

Thus, the Steelers have two backup safeties who haven’t shown the potential to be starters, and two starters who will both be 30 or older this year.  Are you starting to see why I say that safety is a need position for the Steelers?

Finally, we have Troy Polamalu.  As I menti0ned earlier, Polamalu is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  He may be the best safety in the NFL.  But Troy’s playing days will come to an end someday, and the Steelers need to prepare for that day.

Safety Troy Polamalu

Troy will be 30 years old next month.  That may not sound so old, but Troy plays with reckless abandon.  The way that he throws his body around must make him age in dog years.

Troy has only managed to play a complete season once in the past 5 years.  He was on the field during the playoffs and Super Bowl this year, but Steelers fans know that he didn’t really play.  He was too injured to make a difference.  He was just out there acting as a decoy.

Will Troy be 100% healthy next year?  Maybe.  But we all know that the body doesn’t heal as quickly or as completely as we get older (just ask Aaron Smith).  So Troy may or may not be his old self in 2011.

Here’s a radical thought that I know Steelers fans are going to hate, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway.  One of the things that I respect about the New England Patriots is their willingness to trade aging veterans in order to retool for the future.  No team does it better than them.  That’s one of the reason that they always seem to have 2-3 picks in the first round of every draft.  So what would happen if the Steelers stole a page from the Patriots.  Troy is coming off of an amazing season in which he was recognized as being the best defensive player in the NFL.  When will his value ever be higher than it is now?  So what do you think the Steelers could get back in a trade for him?  Two first round picks?  Perhaps a first round pick and a top-notch veteran player?  If Troy were the bait, players who seemed out of reach for the Steelers (like Patrick Peterson) suddenly become a possibility.  Think about it.

I know that I’m going to get hate mail for even suggesting that the Steelers trade Troy.  I’ve been doing  this long enough to know that nothing stirs up the ire of Steeler Nation more than saying something negative about Troy Polamalu.  But I had to at least mention the idea.  It’s what the Patriots would do.  And I think it’s worth discussing.

So the Steelers have two aging veteran starters at safety, and two backups who are never likely to be starters in the NFL.  Oh yeah, and one of those backups is a free agent.  Now do you see why I say that safety is a position of need for the Steelers?

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Steelers position review - Cornerback

March 23, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

Well, it’s almost April.  The NFL Scouting Combine is  over.  The owners have locked the players out.  I guess it’s time to start talking about the draft.

Before we start talking about who the Steelers should draft, it’s important that we first evaluate how the team currently looks.  Specifically, we need to define their strengths and weaknesses.

Despite the fact that the Steelers participated in the most recent Super Bowl, they are actually a team with quite a few glaring needs.

I’m going to start on the defensive side of the ball, because that’s where I believe the team’s greatest needs lie.

Lot’s of people are saying that the Steelers’ greatest need is offensive linemen.  I don’t agree with that.  In my opinion, the greatest need on the team is at cornerback.

Ike Taylor was the only cornerback on the team who even played at an average level.   Ike has been the Steelers’ stopper for years now.  He’s a big, fast cornerback who can handle any receiver in the league.  Despite that, Ike is limited.  Steelers fans all know that Ike can’t catch.  So he’s never going to generate a lot of interceptions.  Ike has never had more than 3 interceptions during a season, and he’s averaged about 1 interception per season throughout his career.

While being a solid cover corner is great, Ike’s inability to create interceptions is kind of like a 3-4 rush linebacker who doesn’t generate sacks; he’s failing at an important part of the job.

Ike will be 31 years old this year, so he’s not getting any younger, and he’s going to start losing a step or two soon.  Moreover, Ike is a free agent this year.  The Steelers didn’t sign Ike to a new contract, and they seem to be content to let Ike hit the free agent market.  If that happens, it could be a potential nightmare for the Steelers, since they really don’t have any other weapons in their cornerback arsenal.

Bryant McFadden was brought back last year, and by midway through the season, most Steelers fans probably wished he was still in Arizona.

If you’ll recall McFadden’s first stint with the Steelers, he was being platooned with William Gay.  McFadden was viewed as being stronger against the run, but Gay was better in coverage.  Well, that’s pretty much how things still are (which is a scary thought, considering how poorly Gay covers).  McFadden is strong in run coverage, but he can’t cover anybody.  Not even my grandmother.  And she’s 89 years old.

If the Steelers cut McFadden today, I don’t think there would be a single fan who would miss him.

In 2009, William Gay proved that he is not a viable starting cornerback.  He was much better this year when he didn’t have the pressure of being a starter on him.  Gay’s performances ran hot and cold.  He made some really great plays at critical moments.  But he also got burned badly at critical moments.  I think most fans are content to see Gay utilized in nickel and dime packages, but not as a starter.

2010 was supposed to be the year that Keenan Lewis made himself a valuable member of the Steelers’ defense.  But sadly, that didn’t happen.

Lewis has all of the physical attributes that Dick LeBeau could possibly hope for.  He’s big (6’0″, 208 lbs), fast, and athletic.  When he was drafted, I envisioned him playing opposite Ike Taylor, giving the Steelers two cornerbacks who were big and athletic enough to handle even difficult receiving tandems like the Arizona Cardinals old duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.  Unfortunately, that vision has never materialized.

Sadly for Steelers fans, Lewis’ mental abilities don’t seem to match his physical talents.  He can be counted on to make a silly mental mistake at the most inopportune times.  Even worse, he often loses control of his emotions and draws penalties that are due entirely to immaturity and hot-headedness.

Did anyone else find it odd that in a season where the Steelers clearly struggled at the cornerback position, Lewis wasn’t able to earn any increased playing time?  That says all that needs to be said about what the coaches think about Lewis’ development.  Next year will probably be a make or break season for Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers drafted Crezdon Butler in last year’s draft.  Like most rookies playing in the Steelers’ defense, Butler didn’t get much playing time.  So the jury is still out on him.  But I’ll expect to see a lot more out of him in 2011.

Those are the players who will likely battle for the starting cornerback positions next year.  Now imagine what the competition will look like if the Steelers lose Ike Taylor to free agency.  The starting cornerbacks would likely be Bryant McFadden and William Gay.  Yikes!  The mere thought of it is enough to bring you to tears, isn’t it?  With those two as the starting cornerbacks, the Steelers would likely go 0-16.  That’s why I say that cornerback is the single greatest need for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Frankly, all other needs pale in comparison.

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