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Cracks in the Armor

In a season where no dominant teams have emerged to rule over the rest of the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have settled into the league’s “new elite,” a collection of very good teams with very noticeable flaws.

New England’s defense is all youth and no experience. Indianapolis is suffering through a bevy of injuries at the team’s skill positions. Atlanta’s pass defense has struggled over the first chunk of the season.

Pittsburgh falls into the same category, but arrived in a different way. The team stormed out to a 3-1 record despite missing their franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who was serving a four-game suspension. The thought among outsiders was that the Steelers would become the league’s lone dominant team once Ben returned to take helm of a franchise that boasted the NFL’s best defense and a renewed faith in the running game.

After 10 games, however, the Steelers stood among a crowded pack with a 7-3 record, good for a tie at the top of the AFC North, all while showing the rest of the league that they, too, had some issues to deal with.

The team’s much-maligned offensive line looked much-improved early in the season, receiving a boost from the head-turning play of rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. But then the injury bug bit the unit, and bit hard.

Pittsburgh already knew that it would be without last year’s right tackle in Willie Colon, of course, and filled that hole with free agent Flozell Adams. The unit shrugged off an early injury to right guard Trai Essex by inserting versatile-backup Doug Legursky. But then left tackle Max Starks went on injured reserve with a neck injury, followed by minor injuries to left guard Chris Kemoeatu and the rookie Pouncey, leaving the Steelers with a seemingly-endless rotation of bodies along the line.
That constant change, where players are dropping in and out of the lineup with regularity, spells trouble for an offensive lineman.

“It’s better to play next to the same guy from a communications standpoint,” explained Tunch Ilkin, Steelers Radio Network color analyst. Ilkin, who was an offensive tackle for the Steelers throughout the eighties and early nineties, provided an example of why so much turnover is a problem.

“Say you and I were playing next to each other all the time and we were watching film all the time together and say [in the game, the opponent] is running a special blitz,” offered Ilkin. “I’ll say ‘there it is.’ Now ‘there it is’ can mean anything, but because we’ve been playing together, you’re gonna know ‘there it is’ means to watch for a specific play, or to watch for the sam linebacker.

“Now if you and I aren’t familiar with one another, I’ve got to spell it out a little bit. The more I have to spell it out, the longer it takes… so it takes your mind off where you’re at in the cadence.”

Losing the cadence, obviously, often results in a lineman committing a false start penalty.

“When everybody is on the same page, everybody is focused on what they have to do and everybody knows what they have to do,” continued Ilkin. “When you’re playing next to a young guy who is new, a lot of times he’s asking ‘what happens if this happens?’ So you’re explaining more. Part of your concentration is divided and you’re not as fully focused on what you have to do.”

Of course, a lack of focus or concentration is a problem at any position, but may be most disastrous on the offensive line, where all five members must work as a cohesive unit. While overall talent is always important, the success of a line is just as reliant on continuity – starting the same five players for as many games as possible.

According to research published by Football Outsiders in its 2007 edition of the Pro Football Prospectus, the teams with more stability on their offensive lines were more efficient on offense, won more games per season, and made the playoffs more times than teams featuring a unit with higher turnover among its members.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the injury bug isn’t something that can be controlled or coached. The only hope for the team is that no further injuries happen, allowing the line to build up at least some level of comfort in time for the playoffs.

An issue that can be coached to a resolution is the performance of the team’s pass defense, which has had major struggles at various points in the season, most notably in two mid-season games against two top-quarterbacks in New Orleans’ Drew Brees and New England’s Tom Brady.

Brees was held in check through the first half of his Halloween-night matchup against the Steelers defense, but clearly noticed something during halftime. The league’s reigning Super Bowl MVP came out firing, completing 20 of his 22 second half pass attempts to hand Pittsburgh what was then its second loss of the season.

Brady’s performance was much more damning for the Steelers. The pass rush failed to put pressure on New England’s signal caller, allowing him to exploit holes over the middle to the tune of 350 yards and three touchdowns, leading to questions about the quality of the team’s secondary play.

“Our pass defense is a culmination of a lot of people,” corrected Tomlin in his weekly press conference after the 39-26 loss at home. “Not only corners but safeties and linebackers and so forth and rush. A lot of the things that went on with [the New England game], many of them were underneath throws that aren’t directly involving cornerback play. We all accept responsibility. Coaches, players and everyone.”

While safety Ryan Clark agreed that improvement will take an effort from all 11 men on the field, he said his group knows that they need to step up in a big way.

“We take the onus on [the pass defense] because we’re the last line of defense in that situation, explained Clark. “We’re the guys who have to stop the man from catching the ball. We’ve really been trying to focus on just being on our details, being closer to receivers, driving and getting some balls out, and just making some plays on the ball. If you’re giving up plays, but you’re also making them, it’s a better deal so we need to be better on the back end.”

The defense bounced back against Oakland with a six-sack performance that forced starting quarterback Jason Campbell out of the game, but the team still needs to prove that it can handle the league’s best quarterbacks, many of whom reside in the ultra-competitive AFC. For the team to make its way to the Super Bowl in pursuit of a league-record seventh Lombardi Trophy, they’ll likely be forced to square off against top-passers like Brady, Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning, or even the emerging star in Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, who already has one win against the team this season.

Of course, even with these flaws, Pittsburgh is still right in the thick of a tough division race and still has a legitimate shot of claiming the AFC’s top seed. The passing offense is beginning to click with Ben Roethlisberger getting into a groove and second-year wideout Mike Wallace challenging defenses as the league’s premier deep threat. The run defense is performing at an elite level, shutting down even top-ranked rushing offenses, and that’s without the services of both of its starting defensive ends.

Ultimately though, the Steelers could rise or fall based on what they don’t do well. Can the pass defense become strong enough to harass the league’s best passers?

Will the offensive line remain healthy enough to offer some stability and cohesion?

And if neither of those situations is resolved, will the team’s greatest strengths be enough to make up for its most-glaring flaws?

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