32 teams in (now) 38 days: Pittsburgh
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 05, 2008
We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ...
Part of the fun of being a sports fan is shitting all over the fans of lesser teams. Few celebrate more gleefully than Pittsburgh fans do over Cleveland fans (this video contains some mildy Not-Safe-For-Work material).
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2007 record: 10-6 (393-269)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 3-2
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 11.4-4.6
All-time franchise record: 513-498-21 (.507)
Playoff record: 28-20 (.583)
Last five seasons: 50-30 (.625)
Best game of 2007: 21-0 home win over Seattle (Week 5). In a season that started with such promise, this victory over the NFC power gave hope that the Steelers might be in for a special season. It was Pittsburgh's first shutout since 2005 and it was an emphatic win: The Steelers dominated every aspect, outgaining Seattle 342 yards to 144 yards and 19 first downs to 8 first downs, while dominating time of possession, 40:45 to 19:15. Matt Hasselbeck and the typically productive Seattle passing attack was held to just 106 net passing yards, while Ben Roethlisberger's performance was so ruthlessly efficient you could see it crushing Seattle's spirit every time he stepped back to pass : 18 for 22 (81.8%), 206 yards, 9.4 YPA, 1 TD, 0 INT and a 120.8 passer rating.
Silly-season activity: Barring some major changes between now and September – certainly possible – the 2008 Steelers will look much like the 2007 Steelers. The major defection to this point, of course, was the loss of free-agent OL stalwart Alan Faneca, who signed a rich deal with the Jets. For the most part, Pittsburgh has re-signed many of its free agents, while extending a major contract extension to their franchise quarterback. On the heels of a season in which he posted a stellar 104.1 passer rating (second only to Tom Brady's 117.2), Roethlisberger signed a $102-million deal that makes him the highest paid player in franchise history.
Strength: Offensive efficiency. The primary benefit Roethlisberger has brought to the Steelers in his four-year career is brutally efficient play at quarterback. As loyal Cold, Hard Football Facts readers ("Hey!" to the gang at Peppi's) are aware, efficiency on offense is infinitely more important than volume. Pittsburgh was one of the most efficient scoring teams in football last year (5th in our Scoreability Index) and the historic play of Roethlisberger was a major factor in that efficiency, perhaps the primary factor.
Critics pan Big Ben for being a "care taker" quarterback, much like the criticisms levied upon the likes of Bart Starr, Tom Brady and even Joe Montana himself early in his career. Funny, "caretaker" quarterbacks seem to sport an unusually large number of rings.
The truth is that Roethlisberger has been one of the most statistically productive quarterbacks at this point in his career in NFL history. He doesn't throw a lot but – like five-time champion Starr – he's historically efficient when he does. Big Ben's career passer rating of 92.5 is fifth best in NFL history, one spot behind Brady (92.9) and one spot ahead of Montana (92.3), though he needs 64 more passing attempts to officially qualify for the record-book minimum of 1,500 attempts. His career mark of 8.13 YPA is sixth best in history, one spot behind Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin (8.16) and one spot ahead of Hall of Famer Steve Young (7.98). And, lost amid the hype last year over Brady, was that Roethlisberger turned out one of the highest single-season passer ratings in NFL history (104.1).
Sure, he's benefitted from a team that generally runs the ball more often than any team in football. But the Steelers always depended upon the run – and for about a quarter-century before the arrival of Big Ben this dependency brought them nothing but frustration.
Weakness: Lack of a knockout punch. The Steelers are clearly one of the elite NFL franchises, and part of the NFL's "Big Three" over the past decade with Indy and New England. They're a consistent contender, as evidenced by their domination of their division and mere three losing season over the past 16 years. But they've proven poor closers. Who can forget the three AFC title game losses, all at home, since 1997? Last year provided more of the same late-season disappointment. Heading into a Week 13 battle at New England, the Steelers were 9-3, boasted a historically dominant defense, and looked by any empirical measure like a big-time contender. Then they lost four of the last five, including two losses to Jacksonville at home – the second in the wildcard round of the playoffs. For whatever reason, this is a franchise that often plays well early in the year but seems to get full of itself somewhere along the way. Second-year head coach Mike Tomlin's greatest challenge is to find a way to fix this institutional flaw.
Most underrated player: OLB James Harrison. Sure, he was recognized as an All-Pro last year after what can only be described as a breakout season for the career back-up. But his name is not yet among the first that come to mind when fans are asked to select the top defensive playmakers in the league. But that recognition will come if he has another year in 2008 that approximates his performance in 2007. Harrison defined the term "one-man wrecking crew" last year, leading Pittsburgh in solo tackles (76), total tackles (98), sacks (8) and forced fumbles (7). He also snared one INT. Harrison's been accused of being a one-man wrecking crew off the field, too. He was charged with domestic abuse after smacking around his girlfriend last month, but the charges were recently dropped.
Unit on the rise: Quarterbacks. Yeah, we know, they got a Pro Bowler there. And Big Ben's historic numbers were highlighted above in great detail. But Roethlisberger, with four years under his belt and having just turned the tender age of 26, is only now entering the "sweet spot" of a quarterback's career (late 20s and early 30s). He's coming off career highs in TD passes (32), TD:INT ratio (2.9 to 1) and passer rating (104.1). He even rushed for a career best 204 yards with another personal mark of 5.8 yards per rush attempt, while adding two more TDs on the ground. His INT percentage remains on the high end for an elite QB, and he takes high percentage of sacks per drop back, which limit his otherwise historic effectiveness. But, barring an injury or another wild motorcycle ride, the Steelers should boast a Hall of Fame talent at the most important position on the field for another 10 years.
2007 Draft grade: D+. Nobody will confuse Pittsburgh Draft class of 2007 with its Draft class of 1974 (four Hall of Famers with its first five picks). Let's put it this way: when your primary contributor from a draft is a punter (Daniel Sepulveda) who you took with the 112th overall pick, there's not a lot of positives to be found, at least not yet.
The Steelers devoted their first- and second-round picks to linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, but both gained limited playing time. But would have thought that the two stud rookie LBs from big-time programs (Florida State and Michigan, respectively) would sit on the sidelines, while Harrison, the undersized (6'0") career back-up (eight starts in the previous four seasons) from the tiny program (Hofstra) would emerge as the team's dominant 'backer? Tight-end Matt Spaeth, taken in the third round, was a special-teamer who caught just five passes for 34 yards, including just 2 for 19 over the final 14 games. The Steelers got next to nothing but a punter from the top half of its draft class, and nothing period from the bottom half.
2008 Draft power: 1st (23), 2nd (53), 3rd (88), 4th (123), 5th (156), 6th (188)
General Draft strategy: For a decade the Steelers had invested heavily in offense with their high draft picks. It provided great success, yielding offensive line stalwarts like Faneca (now with the Jets), Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons, playmakers like Plaxico Burress (now with the Giants) and (budding playmaker) Santonio Holmes, and bedrock franchise performers like Roethlisberger, Heath Miller and Hines Ward.
Mike Tomlin's first draft class leaned heavily toward defense and – as of yet – it's produced little results. The Steelers proved by the end of the season to be middle of the pack in many statistical categories on both sides of the ball, and the Cold, Hard Football Facts prove that teams are built through the draft. So Pittsburgh simply can't afford to miss on two consecutive draft classes or it could find itself mired in mediocrity pretty quickly.
Youth/experience: Pittsburgh boasts and enviable mix of proven veteran leaders on the back nine of their careers (Ward, James Farrior), young sweet-spot veterans (Roethlisberger, Harrison, Willie Parker) and youngsters who might be poised for break-out seasons (Holmes).
Coaching: If we were as effective as Mike Tomlin was during our first year on the job back in 1989, we'd already have risen to senior assistant bottle return man at the Shop & Save. Instead, we're stuck here in the unemployment line of life with you people.
We're not going to pretend Tomlin set the world on fire last year, but he took a talented team that disappointed with an 8-8 campaign under probable Hall of Fame coach Bill Cowher in 2006 and produced a 10-6 season and a division championship in 2007. That's called progress in our neck of the woods. But Tomlin still as a lot to prove, with a team that folded over the last month of his rookie season.
He's buoyed by the assistance of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, one of the best in game, and by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians who, in his first year on the job, guided Pittsburgh to its greatest scoring output (393 points) since its Super Bowl season of 1995. Don't overlook the contributions of quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, either, who joined the team before last season. He was one of the all-time greats himself at the position (and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame with numbers that still stand the test of time). Perhaps it's no coincidence that Roethlisberger rebounded so sharply from his disappointing season of 2006 with Anderson by his side in 2007.
Overview: Pittsburgh has proven to be one of the most consistent winners not just in football but in all of North American sports. There's no reason to expect the team to suddenly slide into oblivion. After all, it has too many of the major building blocks in place: devoted ownership, solid, stable coaching staff and a franchise quarterback. But there is a danger that Pittsburgh could slip into a period of mediocrity: the Steelers stumbled badly through the end of the season, losing to the Jets, getting smoked by the Patriots and getting beat up by the Jaguars twice at home; the Steelers were not among the elite teams in any major statistical category by the end of the year; and the Browns were so close behind Pittsburgh in the division battle last year that the Steelers can smell what they had for breakfast. Pittsburgh is a probable playoff team in 2008. But the franchise has a lot of work in front of it to re-assert its rightful place among the NFL elite in 2008 and beyond.
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