Monday, November 06, 2006

"With the First Pick in the 2007 Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers Select . . ." : The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Back in July or August I reviewed the season preview from Yahoo! Sports (I'd love to tell you exactly when it was, but of course I've lost all of the 460 or so postings from the 54 weeks that preceded this posting). In my review I mocked these "experts" who picked Baltimore to finish first in the AFC North! The sheer audacity of such a pick nearly defies description.

As it turns out the real flaw in the Yahoo! preview was in their pick of the Steelers for second place behind the Ravens. Halfway through the season the Steelers have reduced themselves to playing out the string, looking forward to 2007, and the possibility of a fresh start under a new coaching staff.

But before we begin dreaming of a better day we have to continue our Monday tradition that is the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly.

The Good
Never before has there been a Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic game analysis that didn't offer some positive words about someone on the Steelers' sideline, but they are really making it tough these days. However Aaron Smith certainly is deserving of praise (at least as much as any of the Steelers are) for his fine effort in this game, and his very solid play throughout the season.

In the Steelers' defensive scheme it is the linebackers who are the high visibility players, but Mr. Smith continues to excel. In his previous six full seasons (he played in six games in 1999) Mr. Smith averaged 2.78 tackles per game. So far this season he is averaging 3.5 tackles per game -- an increase of more than 20%. And against Denver he had one of his best games recording four tackles, two assists, the Steelers' only quarterback sack, and even defended a pass. It's a shame, given the team's poor performance, that his efforts will probably go unrecognized on a national scale.

Also doing a good job was the kick coverage team which limited rookie return man Brian Clark to just 17.8 yards per return. And had it not been for Santonio Holmes' fumble of a kickoff the kick return team also could have been applauded -- the Steelers averaged 23.0 yards per kick return in this game.

The Bad
It is a fine line between "bad" and "ugly." At least some of the ugliness that Steelers fans witnessed on Sunday was the result of individual players simply trying to do too much. So in this sense some ugliness is the result of a good thing (effort) gone bad. What do I mean? How about Hines Ward trying to high jump his way into the end zone, only to lose the football? Or Cedric Wilson's fumble inside the Denver 10-yard line as he fought for additional yardage?

Every player on the Steelers' roster is feeling the pressure that arises when a team loses games that they expected to win, and it appears that some key peformers are trying to single-handedly reverse the team's losing ways.

The players on the Steelers' roster are every bit as talented as they were last season, and in some cases the team has actually upgraded its talent over last season's squad. So, the advice here is for all the players to relax, have some fun, and play the game in a more natural manner.

One of the permanent residents of "The Bad" this season has been Chris Gardocki, and this game was no exception. His poor net average (35.0 yards per kick in this game, and 37.0 yards on the season) is adding to the Steelers' woes. Because Mr. Gardocki is unable to kick the ball high enough and/or far off to move opponents back towards their own goal line, combined with the problems the Steelers' offense is having, teams are enjoying a marked field position advantage over Pittsburgh.

To be fair, Mr. Gardocki has never had a net average of more than 39.0 yards in his career and this seasons average is actually higher than last season (34.7). Those types of numbers are fine when your offense can move the football and your punter is being asked to pooch the ball down near the opponents goal line. However, when your offense struggles, and a team needs a big kick to turn the field position around, 37 yards just doesn't get the job done.

And a new entry into "The Bad" is place kicker Jeff Reed. Mr. Reed has enjoyed a fine career in Pittsburgh; and some of this criticism is due to struggles of the offense, but Mr. Reed's margin for error is significantly smaller this season than in seasons past and missing 40-yard field goals just isn't acceptable. Indeed, this season Mr. Reed is 2-of-5 on kicks between 40-49 yards (40%), while coming into the season he was 24-for-36 (67%) from that same part of the field.

Obviously there is much more that could be palced into this category, but then what would we have to talk about as "ugly"?

The Ugly
Oh boy! What a wealth of material to work with! Here is just a portion of the ugliness that abounded in the Sunday's game.
  • Turnovers: Those of you who have read Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic for some time know that I rail against the turnovers. Six times a Steelers' player put the ball on the ground and three times the Steelers lost possession. Combine that with three interceptions and it's a wonder that the game wasn't more of a blowout.
  • The Offense & Play Calling: This unit continued its habit of playing reasonably well in the first half, and then imploding in the second half. For example, in the first half of the game Ben Roethlisberger was 19-for-26 in passing attemtps, 206 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and a respectable 92.8 QB rating. In the second half hei was 19-for-28, 227 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a 62.6 QB rating. Furthermore, the Steelers completely abandoned the run in the second half. In the first thirty minutes the Steelers had rushed the ball 13 times for 67 yards. In the second half they rushed six times for 29 yards. And for those who would like to believe that the play calling was the product of trailing in the game, please remember that in its first possession of the second half 7 of the Steelers' first 8 plays were passing plays, and the drive ended with Ben Roethlisberger's second interception of the game.
  • The Offensive Line: This unit, which excelled in 2005, continues to struggle; and it looks increasinly as though the Steelers should be looking for a left tackle in the draft next April.
  • The Defense: Over the previous eight weeks (seven games) it seemed that one phase of the Steelers' game would collapse while others played well. In this game we saw a complete collapse of the Steelers on both sides of the ball. Jake Plummer looked like a world-beater because of Ike Taylor's continuing struggles, and there is no explanation or excuse for Jevon Walker running 72 yards on an end-around.
Epilogue
On December 5, 2005 it looked very much like the Steelers' playoff hopes had been extinguished following a loss at hom to Cincinnati. Of course fans of the Black & Gold found out that such was not the case, and we all celebrated a Super Bowl win. But despite protestations by Ben Roethlisberger and others let me say here what we all know: the Steelers' season is over.

Even if they were to win out the Steelers would end up at 10-6, and unless Baltimore and Cincinnati lose a few more games besides that then the Steelers would still be on then outside of the playoffs looking in, and would end up with a pick at the tail end of the draft. The better scenario is the Steelers lose the rest of their games, get a top five draft pick, draft the best offensive tackle they can find, get a little bit of a break on their 2007 schedule, go back to the playoffs, and win the Super Bowl again.

It's all so simple when you have a plan.

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