Kovacevic: Steelers deep-sixed? Not so fast
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
“The goal,” Brett Keisel will say boast-free through The Beard, “is to win the Super Bowl. This is the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's how it is here. That's how it should be here.”
Anyone can say such stuff. Blaine Gabbert could say it in Jacksonville. Or Brandon Weeden in Cleveland. Or whichever poor soul they'll serve up for sacks in Kansas City.
They're just words.
Unless, of course, they're supported by six Lombardi Trophies, one-third of which were won with six players on the current roster: Keisel, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Larry Foote and Heath Miller.
Say what you will about 8-8. Mike Tomlin and his men deserve all of it.
Say what you will about the offseason. Mike Wallace, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Max Starks and Keenan Lewis exited, and Kevin Colbert found no experienced replacements.
But let's not pretend those rings mean nothing. Or that the gentlemen wearing them aren't the same competitors.
Instead, let's count down six reasons these Steelers will take a sizable step back to respectability:
6. On-the-go O-line
The Steelers' youngest line since 1957 can move better than any in years. And for all the angst in camp over who will carry the ball, what matters most are the big men up front. If they apply the zone blocking Todd Haley and new line coach Jack Bicknell have installed, they'll show opponents something they don't see much.
“I don't think teams will like lining up against us no matter what the scheme is,” said Ramon Foster, the guard who's the old man of the group at 27. “There's some real talent here.”
The NFL isn't a run-first league anymore. But any team looking to improve is wise to identify where there's the greatest room to get better. The Steelers' running game ranked 28th last season. For the Steelers, that was embarrassing on essence alone, never mind what it might have meant to the record.
This is how to change it.
As Roethlisberger said a couple weeks ago: “No disrespect to anyone, but they might be the best all-around offensive line we've had since I've been here.”
There's little logic in predicting a big season for a 32-year-old safety who has missed 22 games the past four seasons. Beyond that, even when healthy, we haven't seen the real Polamalu since, what, that ridiculous leap over the Cleveland line in 2011?
Well, forget logic.
Could be that Polamalu's offseason has him in unprecedented shape.
Could be that he claims his long-troublesome calves and knees are healed.
Or it could be that he's been making Polamalu-like plays from the first drills of camp.
Loved this exchange in early August with second-rounder Le'Veon Bell when I asked what's impressed him most about being in an NFL setting: “Oh, Troy Polamalu, no question.”
The mane or the fame?
“No, the plays. What he does out there ... it's incredible.”
4. Attitude, approach
It's still inconceivable that this became an issue in 2012. But as Polamalu conceded early in camp: “I believe the strength of this organization is in its camaraderie and its family atmosphere. We didn't have those last year.”
No need to elaborate here. By all accounts, that's been addressed, from Tomlin to the backup long snapper.
“Night and day” was how Taylor described the change.
Don't think for a second that, in any football setting, chemistry doesn't matter.
3. L.T. plus one
No performance last season was underappreciated like Lawrence Timmons'. He was a ravenous beast on the inside.
He knows it, too.
“I had a good year,” he says, “but I believe I can improve.”
When I asked what he might do better, it was telling that he paused, looked around, then replied, “The film room. I'll do a better job of studying.”
Huh. Well, the defense around L.T. actually can improve, contrary to the impression that No. 1 ranking might give off. Fact is, that ranking was built on points and yards allowed. Not at all on sacks, interceptions, and fumbles forced and recovered.
Takeaways aren't just a huge part of the game. They're a huge part of the Steelers' identity until the past couple of years.
Rookie Jarvis Jones has been called a “ballhawk,” and he'll bring more fire to the right edge than James Harrison, certainly more than Jason Worilds.
Cortez Allen showed a knack for nabbing the ball last season. Good as predecessor Keenan Lewis was in coverage, he had no such gene.
Steve McLendon might not run-stuff like Casey Hampton, but he'll be better in penetrating into the backfield.
“There's some great talent here,” Timmons said. “I think you'll see a difference.”
2. Ben & Todd
What matters infinitely more than whether Roethlisberger and Haley are best buds is how they'll find common ground between Roethlisberger's no-huddle, heave-it-half-the-field preference and Haley's smashmouth-running, quick-flick-passing preference.
“We've had a whole offseason together, and that's why I'm so excited about this offense: One year of making it better,” Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger's got plenty left at age 31, and a fresh shoulder has had him zipping the ball. If Haley's top priority is to keep him upright and doing what he does best, that seems to be a fairly simple foundation for a working relationship.
1. 6 new starters
Just as there are six Steelers representing the old guard, so too, via the sweetest symmetry, there could be six new starters.
Jones and Bell were hit by injuries in camp but showed powerful signs they'll be starters sooner rather than later. Bell might take a while, but he's got the makings — and makeup — of a true feature back.
No less important, Tomlin clearly had no issue with getting both involved immediately. That's encouraging on many levels, not least of which is that he appears to have finally moved past being beholden to that broader generation that brought the two rings. There's a fine line between respecting a legacy and ruining the future, and it's clear after 8-8 they waited a season too long.
So let's see Jones and Bell and much more of the wonderfully promising Markus Wheaton, too. The latter has shown maturity beyond his years and at a position where a younger body was a must.
Let's see Allen, McLendon and Mike Adams take a stranglehold on their positions, too.
For that matter, let's see Cam Heyward finally earn his way.
In light of the old six and new six, a softer-than-most-realize schedule and a generally good feeling about all of the above ... how's 10-6?
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