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Season ending thoughts, grades and look ahead to the playoffs

It’s a good feeling to once again see the Steelers in the playoffs. I bitch a good bit on here about the team but we are fortunate to be Steelers fans. With that being said here are some quick grades on the team headed into the postseason.

Offense

QB. Ben – Ben had a good season, he threw for over 4,000 yards for the 2nd time in his career. The team goes as Ben goes. He is the franchise. That being said, I don’t think Ben has really evolved at the position as much as simply learned how to get by on his raw talent and experience. He really could be even better – he still locks onto WR’s at times, holds onto the ball too long, gambles a lot, refuses to take checkdowns, etc. He honestly should be better in all these areas at this point in his career but isn’t. Still a good season for a (usually) great QB – Grade – B+

RB. Mendenhall – One of the worst yards per carry of any starting RB. Not an elite RB, had a decent season. Sucks that he hurt his ACL. Grade – B-

Isaac Redman – Played better than Mendy a good bit of the season. Almost always runs hard, not a feature back though. Grade – B

Mewelde Moore – Barely played in a lot of games. But when his number was called usually always came up big. Grade – B+

WR. Antonio Brown – He is officially the best WR on the team now. Great hands, smooth moves, great in the open field and clutch. What more do you want? Grade – A

Mike Wallace – Took a step back this year, still had a good season but really trailed off in the last half of the season. Needs to step up and be more physical and not quit on plays. Grade – B+

Hines Ward – Ward is clearly not the player he once was. Still a HOF’er though! Grade – B-

Emmanuel Sanders – Hurt a decent part of the year and had to deal with a death in the family. Grade – INC.

Jerricho Cotchery – Not really used enough to make an assessment. Grade – INC.

TE. Heath Miller – Heath quietly had his second best season in terms of catches and rec. yards. Arguably still underused. Grade – A-

DJ Johnson – An OK blocking TE. Didn’t add much as a receiving threat once again. Grade – C+

Weslye Saunders – Loads of potential. Had a couple drops but showed some good things at the end of the season. Grade – INC.

O-Line – I’m going to give the whole line a C+. Some players obviously played better than others but virtually every player had their struggles at times. No real standouts.

Defense

D-Line. Brent Kiesel – Kiesel was arguably the best D-lineman all year, definitely most consistent . Grade – B+

Casey Hampton – Not as dominant in year’s past, but still definitely a presence at times. Grade – B

Ziggy Hood – Hood had an OK year, doesn’t seem to excel at much of anything right now. Grade – C+

I give the rest of the D-line an INC. or B, McLendon and in particular Heyward show potential but need to play more.

LB – Jason Worilds – Has played a decent bit this year with Woodley’s injury. Has good speed but hasn’t shown much else so far. Grade – C+

Lamar Woodley – Almost gets an INC. with his hamstring injury. Has played great in bursts like always, the rest of the time he is pretty much a non-factor. Grade – B-

Larry Foote – Surprisingly still decent in run support but not much else. Grade – C

James Farrior – Still fairly strong in run support and like Foote, not much else. Grade – C+

Lawrence Timmons – Tackle totals have gone down since last year. His sack totals have progressively gone down the last 3 years. Seems to be regressing at times this season. Grade – B

James Harrison – When he’s played he’s been by far the best and most consistent LB. Continues to excel against the run and rushing the QB. Grade – A-

Secondary. Ike Taylor – Another really good season. Still plays the WR better than the ball but that ain’t changing, at least he’s covering the WR like a blanket most of the time. Still has issues as an open field tackler. Grade – A-

Willie Gay – Gay has been maybe the biggest surprise on defense, simply solid all year, great in run support. Grade – B+

Keenan Lewis – Really solid year for the youngster. Could be a starter soon. Grade – B

Troy Polamalu – Troy has had sort of an up and down season, but mostly up. Still a game changer like no other player. Grade – A-

Ryan Clark – Clark has come on of late with some nice hits in the secondary. Still a liability in pass coverage due to slow speed and not being able to defend the pass very well. Grade – B-

The rest of the secondary (Cortez Allen, etc.) I give a solid B, not really enough playing time to make a good assessment.

Special Teams. Jeremy Kapinos – Finished with 20th best punting average. Looked really good at times. Grade – B

Daniel Sepulveda – Before he was injured (again), Sepulveda was having a decent season. His 46.1 yard average is good for 13th best in the NFL. Grade – B

Coverage teams – Played better than in some other recent years. Still room for improvement, though. Grade – B

Shaun Suisham – After a really good year, Suisham comes back down to earth this season. Not reliable at all, especially from distances longer than 40 yards. His FG % of 74 is 34th worst in the NFL this season. His 54% from 40-49 yard range is 30th worst. Grade – D-

Antonio Brown – Over 1,000 return yards. Grade – A

Coaching Grades

Bruce Arians – Another very mediocre year as the Steelers offense continues to underperform, especially given the overall talent. The offense has scored less than 20 points in 7 games this season and in at least a couple other games was aided greatly by the defense and special teams in scoring points. And it’s not like the Steelers have played a particularly brutal schedule. Passing game is ranked 10th, while the run game is 14th. Points per game is 20.3, tied for 21st in the league which puts this offense behind such teams as the Dolphins, Raiders, Vikings and Jets. Grade – D+

Dick Lebeau – Steelers defense is both 1st in yards and points allowed. Pretty good! It helps that the Steelers have faced some pretty anemic offenses (and QB’s) a good bit of the year, but impressive nonetheless. There still have been some bad breakdowns in the 4th quarter, though, like the 92 yard TD drive given up to the Ravens in Pittsburgh. The usually stout run defense has actually fallen down to 8th this season. Overall, another good year for Lebeau and co. Grade – B+ 

Mike Tomlin – Coach T likes to say it’s not about style points, it’s about wins. By that measure, Tomlin has done a great job as the Steelers finish 12-4 on the season. But it’s still hard to tell how much positive impact Tomlin as a head coach has on the team. How has he improved as head coach? Has he? I honestly don’t see how or where he has. He still struggles with gameclock management as always. His team still seem ill-prepared at times, gameplans are fairly predictable, challenges still kinda suck, the overall execution of the team (especially on offense) is far, far, far from being perfect. Still, 12-4. Grade – B-

The Playoffs

I wrote an article “Keys to the Steelers getting back to the Super Bowl” right before the season started this year. Let’s take a quick review of it and see which “keys” materialized for the team heading into the playoffs (the updated comments in bold).

– Lebeau and the secondary need to do a much better job at defending the pass, especially on 3rd down. This one is about as obvious as it gets, which makes it all the more concerning that the Steelers don’t seem to be addressing it. It’d be nice if there was some sort of additional focus on man coverage and on adding some real wrinkles into Lebeau’s schemes. But based on recent years, including the Super Bowl, don’t hold your breath in that department. Did it happen? Yep! Although against mostly mediocre passing teams. 

– Ben improves as a QB. Yeah, I know, Ben is great but he can better. Improving his accuracy on deep balls, improving his timing, checking down more often and cutting back on the pump fake (no need to do it every other pass attempt, Ben) will make Ben a much more consistent and dangerous QB. It’ll also go a loooonnng way in improving the Steelers chances of making it back to the SB. A part of me thinks this simply will not happen, that Ben just isn’t that type of QB, he’s been in the league too long, maybe he’s too dumb (but has football smarts, nonetheless), or it’s just not in his blood. Time will tell, but if he were to incorporate and improve in different areas it could make a huge difference in the Steelers chances of repeating as AFC Champs. Did it happen? Nope!

– The Steelers offense actually has an identity. In addition to that, the Steelers offense actually plays full throttle for 60 minutes. Did it happen? Nope! Unless you count sandlot football and running off tackle almost exclusively on 1st down an identity. 

– Someone other than Troy Polamalu or James Harrison steps up and becomes a consistent playmaker on defense. Could it finally be Lawrence Timmons? Timmons racked up a big number of tackles last year, but I wouldn’t call him a playmaker yet. Lamar Woodley and his new gigantic contract? Woodley puts up a nice number of sacks usually, but he isn’t consistent enough from game to game. Youngster LB’s Jason Worilds or Stevenson Sylvester? Ziggy Hood? Doesn’t look like it. I’d like to name someone in the secondary besides Troy but I just don’t see it. Did it happen? Nope! Hood has played decently, Sylvester has barely played and Worilds has been ho-hum. 

– One. Just give me one rookie that has a positive impact throughout the season. With 21 of 22 starters returning, this could be a tall order. Did it happen? Yep! Cortez Allen, Marcus Gilbert and Weslye Saunders have all contributed. 

– I’d say improving the O-line will be huge, but the Steelers have had a mediocre O-line for pretty much the entirety of the time Ben has been with the Steelers. And the Steelers have been to 3 SB’s under him.  Still, you have to wonder how much longer that kind of success (as well as Ben’s health) can last with a mediocre O-line. The Steelers have pretty much defied the odds in this department but it’s like playing Russian Roulette with Christopher Walken. You know something bad is eventually going to happen. I’ll just say this – if the Steelers continue to struggle in short yardage 3rd down situations, and have no solutions other than to run up the middle, that could seriously dampen any chances of a return to the Super Bowl. Did it happen? Hahahahahaha. To be fair, they’ve been serviceable for most of the year, not really the scapegoat that some want them to be. Still a long way to go, though. 

– Luck. There’s always luck that plays a factor into pretty much any team’s success. Did it happen? Hard to say at this point, 12-4 is a good record, let’s see what happens in the playoffs, but the turnover margin is pretty crazy on this team.

– Tomlin improves as a head coach. He still has a long way to go, which on paper might be an amazingly stupid thing to say (Huh? He’s been to TWO Super Bowls!). Fair enough, but just don’t forget who the best players on this team are – Ben, Troy, Harrison, Ward. All players that were here before Tomlin was head coach. All players who had already won a Super Bowl two years before Tomlin was named head coach of the Steelers. All players that have arguably had much, much more to do with the Steelers recent success than Tomlin. And anyone that has objectively watched Tomlin’s gameday coaching knows that there is much to improve upon. He did a horrendous job in last year’s Super Bowl, not to mention numerous games in the regular season that the Steelers won based on sheer talent and/or luck last year, the infamous “unleash hell” fiasco from the year before, etc. Show us something, Tomlin! Actually outcoach the other team instead of relying on late game heroics or luck to beat an inferior team. Did it happen? Nope! 

– The NFL remains a sea of mediocrity. Steelers had a great run last year, but holy crap did the team have a cakewalk into the Super Bowl. Ravens? Overrated. Jets? Really overrated. In fact most teams in the NFL these days are overrated, most teams these days are simply downright mediocre, which can only be a good thing for the Steelers. Is the NFL still a sea of mediocrity? Yep! Although some teams like the Ravens, Packers, Patriots and Saints could cause some problems for the Steelers on the road or in the Super Bowl. Especially with the way the Steelers (offense) has played this year. 

– Steelers don’t have to face the Pats in the playoffs. Sorry, I had to throw that one in here. Although wouldn’t it be nice if the Steelers beat them for once? Of course, not having to play them in the post season (like last in last year’s playoff run) hugely increases the odds of the Steelers making it back to the Super Bowl. Did it happen? Too soon to say! The Steelers did beat the Pats earlier this year at Heinz Field.

– The Steelers actually use some short passing (besides smoke screens to WR’s) on a more regular basis. Not really counting on this one to happen at all, but it’d be nice if it did. Did it happen? Sort of! Not with any consistency outside of a few games. 

– Bruce Arians retires mid-season. Did it happen? I wish! 

Outside of a couple areas, not much has improved for this team, in my opinion, to get back to the Super Bowl and win it. Heading into the playoffs, this team is either staying the same or regressing (run defense, offensive production) from last year. It’s strange, I’ve always felt somewhat optimistic with the Steelers chances in the playoffs – mostly due to the overall talent on the team vs. other teams in the NFL, but I’m not really feeling it this year. The team just hasn’t played well or been coached very well. They have to be one of the more unimpressive 12-4 teams in recent memory. If not for a fairly weak schedule the team probably isn’t 12-4.

Steelers can definitely get back to the Super Bowl – no one in the AFC is really that great once again. But beating potentially the Broncos, Ravens and Pats all on the road is a pretty tall order for a team not playing very well at the moment.

The Injury Excuse

I can already see it – If the Steelers fall in the playoffs everyone will conveniently blame the injuries on this team. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. The only injury that has the potential to really mess up the Steelers chances it to Ben. But he is still playing.

It sucks that Rashard injured his ACL, but how much impact would he really have if he did play? This is a RB that has one of the worst yards per carry of any RB in the NFL this year. Redman has played arguably just as well, if not better, than Mendy for a good bit of the season. Depth is a concern, though. But if the Steelers offense is going to find success, it’ll be mostly with the passing game in the playoffs, as always. Rookie John Clay and hopefully Mewelde Moore will be ready to go.

Lamar Woodley is slated to play. How effective or consistent he’ll be is anyone’s guess. Woodley does seem to step it up in the playoffs, so let’s cross our fingers on that one.

Manny Sanders is back and could be a real X factor.

Cortez Allen seemed to injure his shoulder against the Browns, but he is around 4th on the CB depth chart (This could be a problem if he can’t go against a potential Patriots matchup) and could still play this weekend.

Most teams headed into the playoffs tend to be banged up (which is why a bye is huge and why losing twice to the Ravens is also huge), to use that as a scapegoat if the Steelers lose in the postseason is a little ridiculous. The only one with real merit is Ben’s injury (and possibly Woodley’s). But again, Ben is playing and definitely can be effective with the proper gameplanning and playcalling.

To use the injury excuse if the Steelers lose is to ignore the real problems that have persisted for some time on this team – Lack of gameday coaching, execution and preparedness. Even with Ben’s injury, the Steelers could easily gameplan around that but I saw no real evidence of that against the Browns. Why? Two words – Bruce. Arians.

Let’s hope for the best, even if things aren’t looking so good. Anything is possible with this team, the talent and experience is there, not sure about the rest, though!

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