This will be a four-part series of the Steelers breakdown that I put together for an analysis of the Steelers 2009 season. The installments will be looking at the offense, the defense, special teams and finally we will take a look back at every game from this season with my thoughts and the links to the game recaps. Some parts, such as the offense and defense, will be a little bit longer, other parts, such as the special teams, will be shorter because lets face it, who really wants to talk about special teams. But that is neither here nor there. Here We Go.
The Steelers season in a little more than a few weeks over so I figured it was a better time than ever to give a little season recap and see where we go from here into the offseason, draft, camp and the 2010-2011 season.
In case you have been in a cave for the past five months the Steelers finished the season 9-7 and missed out on the playoffs because of a poor conference record and tiebreakers not falling their way. The Steelers started out poorly, a 1-2 start, but bounced back and finished the first half of the season 6-2.
The second half of the season did not go as well as you might have thought. After going 6-2 with big victories over some good teams the Steelers lost five straight. It was not like they lost five straight to the best teams in the league, they lost five straight to Bengals, Chiefs, Ravens, Raiders and Browns. What a shot in the balls.
The Steelers finished up the season strong with three straight wins over Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami. Just think if the Steelers win one out of the three games against the Chiefs, Raiders or Browns then we still might be watching the Steelers now. That is neither here nor there. The middle part of the season was a disappointment to say the least. It hurts not to make the playoffs, but go check out the last ten years of Steelers football, we have been pretty good.
After the jump is the third part of the segment of recaps which includes a look at the Steelers offense and how they were a huge part of this season for the successes, and some would say the failures of the Steelers season.
When you think about the Steelers quarterbacks over the last handful of years you think of one man, Ben Roethlisberger. Ben had, statistically, his best season as a pro this year. Ben threw for a franchise record 4,328 yards, which was good for 7th in the league despite missing a game due to injury. If you put Ben into the Ravens game that he missed and add his average passing yards per game that would give him 4,618 which would rank second in the NFL.
Not only was Ben cash throwing the football for yardage this year but he was also 2nd in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.55). This is one stat that is commonly overlooked in the NFL but it could possibly be the most important stat for a QB out side of completion percentage. Yards per attempt take in completion percentage because every time that Ben drops back he averages 8.55 yards. I know that is somewhat confusing but it just speaks to how accurate that Ben was this year and how successful he was at getting the ball down the field. Ben was also 5th in the league in completion percentage (66.6%) as he hit 337 of his 506 pass attempts. Ben also finished fifth in the league in QB rating with a 100.5 rating and had eight games with a rating of 109 or better. QB rating is not really used to determine QB success because I feel it is a flawed system but some still find value in it. Hell any time you are in the top five of the league in a category you must be doing something right.
Stats can never define Ben Roethlisberger as a quarterback and this year was no different. Ben was sacked 50 times, most in the NFL. If Ben was not as good as getting out of sacks then he probably would have got dropped at least 70 times and that might be a low number. Making plays on the run is something that you can’t take away from the big man and he thrives in that situation. When teams bring the pressure that is when Ben makes the big play. Facing the blitz this year Ben was at his best. Ben threw 166 passes when the blitz was coming and he completed 68% of those passes for nine touchdowns and only three interceptions. Ben knows how to face the pressure and still continues to excel in that category.
Ben also is pretty cash money when times are tough. In the fourth quarter Ben excels and in games of the fourth quarter when his team is up or down by seven or less Ben completed 60% of his passes for four touchdowns and zero interceptions. On the same level Ben was just as successful in the two minute drill of the halves. In the final two minutes of each half Ben threw for eight touchdowns and only two interceptions while averaging almost nine yards per attempt. He loves the pressure.
Nothing personified this more than down the stretch run of the season in the Green Bay game. With the Steelers down 36-30 with 2:06 Ben did his thing. Starting from his own 14 yard line Ben led a charge to get the Steelers the win. What a player. With three seconds left and the Steelers sitting on the 19 yard line Ben stood in the pocket and found Mike Wallace in the back corner of the end zone with no time left on the clock and after Jeff Reed knocked down an extra point the Steelers had a walk off win. Ben threw for a franchise record 503 yards.
Ben wasn’t without his faults this year. As everyone will say Ben holds on to the ball way too long and holds on to try and make that big play that we can always make. Ben did get sacked 50 times but a lot of those were on Ben. He does hold on to the ball too long but the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives in these situations. Ben also has been bashed for throwing the big pick this year but he did a much better job this year of that. Much was made about Ben sitting out against the Ravens, but I have no problem with that. Some might bash Ben for that, but not me. I am glad he sat out and got better.
Overall this was a great year for Ben and his development.
Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon were the backups with Batch going down with an injury. This was pretty hurtful when Ben went down against the Ravens and Dennis Dixon made his first every NFL start. Dennis played very well in the same respect throwing for 145 yards and scoring two touchdowns (one rushing, one passing). Dennis made one mistake when he threw a pick in overtime that sealed the deal for the Steelers loss. Continued development with Dixon is going to be important for this team as we are probably guessing that Charlie will be done next year or the year after.
Coming into the season Rashard Mendenhall was in the doghouse and Willie Parker was the starter by miles and miles. Boy how things change. Mike Tomlin essentially made Rashard a healthy scratch in week three against the Cincinnati Bengals in week three and that must have set something off in this kid because he got the message.
Willie Parker went out of the lineup with a turf toe injury so in steps Mr. Mendenhall. After losing two straight they come into Heinz field against San Diego and he just went off. 29 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns for the second year back. Mendenhall gained Tomlin’s trust and he was the starting back the rest of the season.
On the season Mendenhall gained 1108 yards on 242 carries for a 4.6 average and seven touchdowns. What helped the Steelers more than his running abilities were his pass catching. Willie Parker was never the guy who was going to be a threat coming out of the backfield and catching a pass but Rashard showed that he was more than capable of doing that. 25 grabs for 261 yards and a touchdown is what Mendenhall had in the receiving end. Mendenhall also got much better in the pass protection game throughout the season. He still is very young but he is learning the system and had some great blocks throughout the season to keep Ben clean.
The huge knock on Mendenhall this season is holding onto the ball. He fumbled the ball three times and those fumbles occurred at huge times. He has all the tools and talents to be a starting running back, as we saw this year, but he needs to hold onto the ball and secure it better. Rashard also has patented the spin move that you like to use on Madden 10 to get away from that defender. He uses that in real life like your buddy does in Madden. He toned it down some later in the year but when he does that little spin that ball gets way out there and he is very vulnerable to putting the ball on the turf.
Willie Parker had a very up and down year, from starter, to injury to back up. Parker’s most success came in week three against Cincinnati where he carried the ball 25 times for 93 yards and the final game of the season when he ran the ball 12 times for 91 yards. In the middle of those two games Parker never carried the ball more than seven times in a game and only gained more than 20 yards three times. Parker is an unrestricted free agent this year and he wants to be a starter. I still think he has some left in the tank, he finished the season strong, so he will probably find a starting job somewhere but I doubt he is back this year.
Mewelde Moore is kind of the unsung running back in the system. He only ran for 118 yards on the season but he does all the little things that are needed as a third down back. He is very good at catching the ball out of the backfield and caught 153 passes for two touchdowns. You will not notice him in the box score after every game but he is the kinda back that every team needs, someone that will be willing to do anything. He can pick up the blitz, catch the ball, run the ball and even line up in the slot and run routes.
When you look at the backfield you probably can say that they were not up to snuff this year but the Steelers were 18th in the league in rushing attempts. This is a passing league and we have one of the best quarterback in the league. The Steelers are sticking with the trend in the NFL and to some Steelers fans that is just unacceptable. This was, in essence, Rashards rookie year in the NFL. He is developing and he will continue to improve and open the offense up with both his running and pass catching abilities.
Another beef that is legit by a lot of people are the struggles of the third and fourth and short rushing. The Steelers started to spread the field in the shotgun a lot this year. This is a mix of the line and the backs but it is just unacceptable not being able to pick up a majority of those, especially in the red zone and down by the goal line. This is something that has to get resolved for next year.
Overall it was not a great year for the backs, but it could always be worse.
The receivers had a great year, nobody can deny that. Ben put up big numbers so you can’t really say that the receivers were bad, I mean someone had to catch the passes right? Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes each picked up 1,000 yard seasons, while Heath Miller and Mike Wallace each went over 750 yards receiving. All of them had five or more touchdowns so each of them got a piece of the pie.
When you think of Steelers receivers you think of Hines Ward. Dude just is the real deal when it comes to complete receivers. He blocks and he is a great route runner and just picks up first downs. He caught 95 passes this year and finished with 1167 yards which was ninth in the league. Ward picked up 56 first downs, which is down from his career average of 63% of his catches being first downs. Ward a just a great year not only catching the ball, but blocking too and is the emotional leader of this team.
Santonio Holmes had his best year as a pro this year. 1248 yards and five touchdowns and converted 63 of his 79 receptions for first downs (80%). Holmes was highly effective and was Ben’s go to guy late in the year when Ward was hampered with his hamstring problems. Holmes was second in the entire league of plays of 20 or more yards with 21 and did not put the football on the turf all season. Tone is a big time number one receiver and he started to show that this year and his is progressing very nicely. He is learning how to block downfield from Hines Ward and I really think that is the part of his game that many don’t notice and don’t pay attention to but that is big for Tone being a big time receiver.
I could probably put Heath Miller in with the offensive line but he is more of a pass catcher than a blocker and he was used a lot more this season. He caught 76 passes where his previous high was 48 and went for 789 yards and six touchdowns. He has the best hands of any tight end I have seen and he is as reliable any anyone on the field to catch a pass. His blocking has improved and he is becoming one of the top tight ends in the game whether people will admit that or not. Complete tight end.
Was there a better story than Mike Wallace? Dude gets drafted, knew he had speed but not much more than that. What does he do? Becomes a big time player in lou of Limas Sweed continuing to take Ike Taylor ball catching classes. Wallace came out of nowhere and caught 39 balls for 756 yards. He caught six balls for 40 or more yards and also scored six touchdowns. Tone was our deep threat but Wallace has speed that you can’t even imagine. He wasn’t as consistent as you probably would have liked but he was very solid as a rookie at a position that most don’t have success in that early. 28 of his catches went for first downs so he was pretty successful at moving the chains and stretching the field which really opened up things underneath for Hines and Heath to make their catches. Great season for Mike.
The great unknown for this Steelers team is Limas Sweed. I have no idea what to say about this kid. Coming out of college most thought he could make a big difference in this offense but he just flat can’t catch. He only had one reception on the year for five yards and a ton of drops. One huge drop against Cincinnati that I feel cost them the game. He makes that catch and it is over. I am not sure I would cut him next year but next year might be one of the last chances he has to prove something to me as a football player.
The offensive line is really something that I have no idea where to even start or how to even handle talking about them. They played some good ball games against some good teams but then they would put it in the tank against some of the worst competition in the game. For the record I do believe that this unit was better this year than last year, but what is that really saying.
This unit gave up 50 sacks this year which topped the 46 times he was sacked in 2008 and the 47 times he was sacked in 2007. This years line pretty much fell in line with the past years. From stats inc they show both Max Starks and Willie Colon both giving up eight sacks each while combining for 13 penalties on the season (Colon with 6 and Starks with 7). To put them up against the best tackles in the league, pro bowler Jake Long gave up five sacks and took four penalties this year and Ryan Clady gave up six and a half sacks and took five penalties.
The middle of the line is a little undersized with Justin Hartwig and Ramone Foster had to come in a fill in for an injured Chris Kemoeatu with four games left and Trai Essex played a decent year with stats inc only having him giving up one and a half sacks.
It is really hard to formulate an opinion on this unit. I mean look at what they did against two of the best in the game in Jarred Allen and Elvis Dumervil. Allen had one tackle and no sacks and Dumervil only had a half tackle and a half sack. But then you look at the Cleveland game and they give up eight sacks to a unit that had like three sacks the entire season. I have no idea.
Once again you have to agree that Ben does take some responsibility for maybe 40% of these sacks so it is not all on the line up a lot of other things are. As I talked about with the running backs it is unacceptable that you can’t pick up a first down when it is third and one or fourth and inches. They picked up a few more at he end of the year but the run blocking was just too hit and miss this year. Of the offense as a unit this was probably the weak link and there is sure a lot of room for improvement.
A new line coach is in the mix and the upper management has already brought the hammer down that there needs to be more running and a focus on the run game. Hopefully this will push Mike Tomlin and the new line coach to instill some better performances out of this group.
Overall it was a nice season for the offense. They had a group that had a 4,000 yard passer, two 1,000 yard receivers and a 1,000 yard rusher. Not a bad offensive season. There were plenty of things to celebrate this season but there is a lot of work. The offensive line needs work and the run games needs some work but this is the new NFL. To win you have to have a good QB and be able to throw the ball. The Steelers are molding into that but getting the running game back into the mix would defiantly help Ben. Spare me the cries that we need to run the ball like when Jerome was here. That is not how the Steelers are built now and this team is a very good and dangerous team. There is no need to rebuild, just reload.
What do you guys think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments. Have at it.