Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011 Pittsburgh Steelers - a Post-Mortem

As has been well reported, the Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos in crushing fashion Sunday night, ending their reign as defending AFC Champions. Here are my thoughts on what was actually a good season that probably ended too soon.

1) The Big Failure. Simple: losing both games against the Baltimore Ravens. The opening game was an embarrassment. Giving up a 92-yard TD drive at the end of regulation in week 9 for loss #2 wasn't a whole lot better. If they could have held on to their lead and won the week 9 game, they'd have finished 13-3, won the division, and have secured both a 1st round bye and home field throughout the playoffs by virtue of beating the Patriots in week 8. Ultimately, the course of the Steelers' playoff exit may have been decided on November 6th.

2) Some Rest Would've Been Nice. I realize hindsight is 20-20, but the Steelers didn't handle injuries well down the stretch. Roethlisberger should have been inactive to let his ankle heal fully. Again, go back to November 6th - they win that game, no question Big Ben doesn't play on a bum ankle.

3) Are they too old? Good question. They certainly looked that way on Sunday. Were the injuries to D-Line stalwarts Hampton and Keisel age related? Probably not, but neither of them are spring chickens from a football perspective. It's already pretty much assured that Aaron Smith won't be back next year after season-ending injuries two years in a row. Defensive captain and signal caller James Farrior just finished his 15th season. Hines Ward ends his 14th season (I think he'll be back) but that isn't a big deal because...

4) The Steelers have the best receiving corps in the NFL. Period. They don't have the best single receiver. They have the best unit. Antonio Brown: first ever in league history with 1,000+ receiving yards and 1,000+ return yards. Mike Wallace: nobody will out run him. Emmanuel Sanders: so long as he stays healthy, he's clutch. Jericho Cotchery came up with a couple of big catches in key spots, but won't likely return since he's an unrestricted free agent and with the Brown/Sanders/Wallace trifecta, the Steelers will use cap space and the dollars elsewhere. Prediction: Ward takes a pay cut and stays here. The alternative is retirement. He's loved here, and was around for the Rod Woodson departure debacle. I don't think he'll risk his good will with the fans.

5) Back to an "age" topic, what was up with Polamalu? No secret Troy had an off-year. What I found more disturbing than his lack of interceptions, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries was his instincts seemed to be off. Throughout his career, Polamalu has had an awesome ability to jump plays or come out of nowhere to make a game changing play. He started looking better late in the season - I saw a lot of that Troy - but was way off the mark in the Wild Card playoff game. Hopefully, he gets back in the groove for next season...at age 31.

6) Let's hope Maurkice Pouncey isn't really fragile. Two seasons. Two late season ankle injuries. He also missed time during the season. The difference in the Steelers' O-Line is massive when Pouncey plays versus not. We need him healthy.

7) What next? With their loss Sunday, the Steelers locked up the 24th overall pick in the 2012 draft. I think they might be in the position of picking the "best available player regardless of position", but I think they'll shy away from a receiver. If I was making the pick, it would be a lineman - offense first, then defense.

Looking ahead to the 2012 season, the Steelers will get a rematch with the Broncos (figure that will be a Sunday Night Football appearance). If the AFC West is on the rise, it could be a tough schedule. Games vs. the Jets and Titans should be easy wins based on relative team situations. The games vs. the NFC East should be interesting too - the only walk-over is the Redskins.

What will 2012 hold? It's going to depend really on how the Steelers who suffered late season injuries (Rashard Mendenhall, in particular, not mentioned earlier) recover. Right now, I'm going to say they don't do as well as this year, finish 11-5 but win the division with a week 17 victory over the hated Ravens.

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