"You are educated when you have the ability to listen to almost anything
without losing your temper or self-confidence." - Robert Frost

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

2011 Steelers Season Preview

The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers
Season Preview

The Steelers organization remains in a golden era.  With a young franchise quarterback and outstanding defense they have appeared in three Super Bowls over the past six seasons, winning two.  While there have been hiccups (arguably, the three non-Super Bowl seasons all underachieved), the fact remains both the talent level and potential heading into the 2011 season are very high.

No team in the NFL has the stability from ownership through management and the coaching staff quite like Pittsburgh.   And many analysts are predicting that stability will help the team’s performance after the extended labor lockout.  While I am not as sold stability is much greater an advantage in 2011 as in other years, the fact remains the Steelers will likely have the same coaching staff and 20 or 21 starters on the field week 1 of the season.

The offense during the Ben Roethlisberger era has remained surprisingly more consistent that some realize.  Between 2004 and 2010, the Steelers have been ranked between 9th and 12th in scoring per game and between 5th and 9th per Football Outsiders rankings in six of those seasons.  The exception was 2008, when the team ranked 17th and 21st respectively and Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating dipped to 81.9.  Much of this drop can be contributed to the severe schedule strength and considerable weather issues in many of those games as this team did end up winning Super Bowl 43.

The more significant correlation to the Steelers either over or underachieving has been on the defensive side of the football.  If you analyze the overachieving seasons of 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010 there is a clear connection to great defensive football.  In each of those seasons, the defense ranked top 4 in points allowed per possession and top 5 in sack percentage.  In 2004, 2008 and 2010 we were also top 3 in defensive passer rating.

The conclusion from this data seems to indicate unless the offense takes a step up into the top-5 group, the Steelers defense will have to continue its dominance for the season to overachieve and find success in the postseason.

So the question becomes, can the offense take this step?  Or can the defense remain the force it has been periodically over the past seven seasons?  Let’s look at each of those questions separately.

The Offense

The offense, while good, has been stagnant under the direction of Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger.  This issue has caused strife among the more hard-core fans of the team and Arians remains a lightning rod of criticism on and off throughout the year.  There were, however, some positives to emerge during the 2010 season after Roethlisberger’s return to the lineup.  Those being:

1.    Roethlisberger appeared more studious and prepared mentally for games.  This is evidenced by his career lows in interception (1.3%) and sack (7.6%) percentage.

2.    Scoring during his 12-game stretch reached 2.06 points per possession (8th) and 24.0 points per game.  Both are improvements from previous seasons but not top-5.

It would not be unreasonable to expect Roethlisberger to continue at this pace and production in the 2011 season.  But again, 8th in scoring is good, not great.  Nor would it counteract any drop outside the top-5 from the defensive side of the football.

The negatives in the offense are considerable and have been thorns in the side of the team for some time.  Those being:

1.    The running attack remains frustratingly inconsistent.  The metrics on success rate, yards per carry, stuffed percentage and Football Outsiders rankings consistently place our running game in the bottom third of the league.  These metrics have been consistently poor since Arians took over the offense in 2007.  Also, because we run the ball more on 1st and 10 than any other down (54% in 2010), this directly contributes to our 22nd ranked yards per 1st down (5.30 yards).
2.    Sack percentage and negative plays remain an issue.  Again, since Arians’ promotion in 2007, sack percentage has never been higher than 29th in the league.  Much of that has to do with Roethlisberger and his high-risk, high rewards style of play.  But the offensive line and coaching do deserve some criticism.  The offensive line is also responsible for our average rank of 24th in runs stuffed (since 2007).  The group also committed 34 penalties in 2010, which was considerably more than recent years (20-25 per season).  All these negative plays create too many drive killers and hold back an otherwise great offense.
3.    There are some disturbing declines in our red zone efficiency over the past few seasons.  And red zone issues were significant in the 2010 season prior to great statistical run weeks 14-17 (that stat padding though included games versus the Bengals, Panthers and Browns).  Overall, points per red zone appearance have dropped from 4.90 in 2008 to 4.56 in 2009 and 4.44 in 2010.  This is a trend that must be corrected if scoring output and offensive consistency are to improve.

There has been a long list of excuses and diversion tactics from the Steelers organization aimed at avoiding the criticism and answering the above issues.  And the success of the team overall does deserve recognition, on both sides of the ball.  But the question remains can this offense, with the current coaching staff and personnel, improve significantly and become a top-5 offense?

To do that, we must hope for improvements on the following fronts:

1.    The offensive line, which was decimated by injuries in 2010, stays healthy enough for the coaching of Sean Kugler to make significant improvement in the group.  This is a critical piece of the puzzle and starts with having a healthy Max Starks at left tackle, Maurkice Pouncey at center and Flozell Adams at right tackle.  Each of these individuals has shown leadership and play ability that could lead to improvement.
2.    We finally find a right guard that can play.  The addition of 2nd rounder Marcus Gilbert via the draft or the re-signing of Willie Colon presents two real options to greatly improve the right guard position on the Steelers.  This position has been rated the lowest in the NFL by Pro Football Focus over the past three seasons and has been manned by a rotating group of non-starter talents since 2008.  Getting this spot’s performance even to average could do wonders for the line as a whole.
3.    The young wide receivers continue to develop and find rolls in the passing game.  This includes further development of Mike Wallace into a complete top-10 receiver and Manny Sanders and Antonio Brown take nice steps forward in their second seasons.
4.    The front office uses free agency to upgrade some of the smaller offensive pieces.  This could be as minor as finding a better third down back than Mewelde Moore or bringing in a red zone target wide receiver to mix in reps with Sanders and Brown.
5.    Bruce Arians improves his in-game “feel” for play calling and matchup recognition.

If all or parts of these five things happen, then overall improvement may follow and result in a fairly significant bump in offensive prowess.

I think most Steelers fans feel like I do that Ben Roethlisberger is a top-5 quarterback in this league.  It’s time for the coaching staff and front office to make the offense top-5 as well.

The Defense

As stated earlier, it has been the defense in Pittsburgh and its dominance that has most correlated to our successful seasons of late.  In both 2008 and 2010, the metrics were downright scary:  1st in scoring, 1st in Football Outsider rankings, 2nd in opposing passer rating, 3rd in sack percentage, top-3 in 3rd down conversion percentage (1st in 2008).  In each season, the Steelers also produced the NFL Defensive Player of the Year:  James Harrison (2008) and Troy Polamalu (2010).

The elephant in the room is what happened in 2009.

That year, there were significant breakdowns in pass defense as shown by a large jump in passer rating allowed (83.5, 15th), 3rd down conversion (42.3%, 28th) and red zone defense.  These struggles persisted despite consistent pressure from the defensive front (2nd in sack percentage).

As many remember, 2009 was the season Troy Polamalu missed 12 games and the combination of promoting 33-year old Tyrone Carter into Polamalu’s spot and William Gay into the #2 CB spot (manned by Bryant McFadden in 2008 and 2010) had drastic consequences.  What 2009 revealed was significant lack of depth in the secondary group resulting from recent failures in scouting and development.

Obviously replacing a future hall-of-famer like Polamalu when injured isn’t easy and not to be expected.   But production can’t go from top-5 to bottom-10 either.  It is vital the talent, coaching and game preparation throughout the secondary be upgraded.  This particularly extends from the #2 CB and nickel back to the whole depth chart after them.

The Steelers front office did add bodies through the draft in the form of Curtis Brown (3rd round) and Cortez Allen (4th round) but with Ike Taylor scheduled to test the unrestricted free agent market and no other significant additions (yet); the logical outlook is to again expect the secondary to live/die on the health of Troy Polamalu.

The big positive however is this is the most talented and deep front-7 I have seen on the Steelers since the 1970’s.  With the additions over the past three drafts in Ziggy Hood (1st round, 2008), Jason Worilds (2nd round, 2009) and now Cameron Heyward (1st round 2010), we have the best front-7 in football even with injuries and exceptional rotational possibilities for Dick Lebeau to work with.

This front-7 plus a healthy Troy Polamalu almost guarantees a top-5 defensive performance for the 2011 season regardless of the cornerback situation.  And those are nice cards to be holding.  It is the pessimist that asks if we have the talent in the secondary to hold the ship together if/when Polamalu misses games.  As of this writing, I do not think we do.

Special Teams

I would be remiss to not mention the current special teams situation on the Steelers, even if I value those groups much lower than the norm.  I am a firm believer in Football Outsiders theory special teams is 1/7th the weight towards a team’s overall success/failure.

I also feel metrics that attempt to value or rate coverage and return units down to the “yard” are a waste of time and show little correlation to winning and losing.

I am a strong believer that returns only matter when they are “major” in scope and can be defined as a “Big Play” or even partial “Big Play”.  In this sense special teams coverage/return units should be measured like turnovers, in a plus/minus fashion.

So since 2007, I have attempted to record what I consider “impact” plays from both the Steelers return and coverage units (I feel normal FG kicking statistics are adequate to rate field goal performance).  During this era, not surprisingly, the Steelers have had fairly poor return/coverage groups.  This ranges from net -3 in 2007, -0 in 2008 and -5 in 2009.  These years were marked by numerous returns against that either resulted in TD’s or good field position and very few good returns by the Steelers.

In 2010 however, this trend reversed itself.  For the first time since I started measuring “big plays” the Steelers return/coverage units generated a positive score:  +5 (generating +10½ points for and -5½ points against).  This included generating 6 BIG PLAYS (+1’s) during the 2010 season (a KO returns for TD, a blocked punt and 4 turnovers generated on coverage units).  This is almost as many as the three previous seasons combined (7 +1 plays total from 2007-2009).  This improvement seemed directly related to fixing the back end of the linebacker and defensive backfield roster and improvement in our return men.

Field goal kicking, for the most part, has been steady and even above average considering the conditions at Heinz Field.  While Jeff Reed’s inconsistency during the beginning of the 2010 season resulted in his release, Shaun Suisham performed exceptional the remainder of the season (14 of 15, 8 of 9 from 40+).


The Pittsburgh Steelers are clearly in the upper echelon of teams in the NFL heading into the 2011 season.  Since Mike Tomlin’s arrival in 2007, the team has gravitated toward his character and football style.  This is a physical, opportunistic and resilient team.  They are not the most technically savvy team.  They are not the smartest and don’t often out-think opponents.  But they win war-of-attrition contests and are a scary 4th quarter team that is almost impossible to knock out.

These qualities provide an exciting brand of football for fans and 2011 should be no different.  Expect close finishes, big hits, frustrating losses and the potential for a deep playoff run.

Ben Roethlisberger is poised for possibly his greatest season as a professional.  This is as quiet an off-season for him in years and if his off-field persona has straightened out like promised if could yield impressive improvements between the lines.

The offensive line might surprisingly improve if they can stay healthy under Sean Kugler’s tutelage.

A healthy Troy Polamalu early in the season during our “difficult” stretch in the schedule (@ Baltimore, @ Indianapolis, @ Houston in the first 4 weeks) could yield impressive victories that put us on the map as early AFC favorites.

Even with early losses, the season shapes up for a serious run towards the playoffs in November and December.  Only one playoff team from 2010 (Kansas City) is on the schedule after November 6th (weeks 10-17).

The key measuring stick game of the season for me is week 8 at home against New England the day before Halloween.  Belichick and Brady will again test our secondary and truly show exactly where we are as a team both offensively and defensively.  Even with a terrible start, a victory versus New England and again the following week at home against Baltimore should get us back in the running for the division.

The season only gets sidetracked if we start terrible (1-3 to start), lose to both the Patriots and Ravens game at home and sit at a woeful 4-5 (or worse) at the halfway mark.  At that point, internal issues or injuries have likely derailed things so much a 2nd half run isn’t feasible nor can catch up being two games or more behind the Ravens.

I find those events unlikely and in fact have higher hopes for this group than I have many previous seasons.  I predicted 10-12 victories last year and I am bumping that up for 2011.  The Steelers win between 11-13 games and once again battle Baltimore over the division via tie-breakers.  A serious run in the playoffs is also likely to happen depending on matchups.

And for my shocker:  I think Roethlisberger gets serious consideration for MVP this season.  Looking at the defenses we face and some of the potential shoot-outs on the schedule, this is the year Roethlisberger’s statistics could get equivalent to some of the “quantity stat” guys like Manning and Brees.  And with a 12-4 or 13-3 record to back him up, Roethlisberger’s redemption season could end very magically and garner a lot of public attention.

Go Steelers!!!