In part I of this week's question and answer exchange, James Pete from MVN's Steel Tradition answered Total Titans' five questions regarding Sunday's Tennessee Titans/Pittsburgh Steelers heavyweight matchup.
My questions and his answers are after the jump.
1. Smashmouth football has traditionally been a staple of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive attack. However, your team is currently ranked #23 in rushing yards. What's wrong with the running game?
Truth be told, Drexel, talking about the Steelers' run game is a sticky situation. Seemingly since the beginning of time, the Steelers have been running the ball down your throat, so to say its a touchy situation this year would be an understatement. So let me itemize for you, the problems with THIS Steelers' running game.
Willie Parker, who really is one of the better backs in the league, has been sidelined on and off all year with several injuries, and really hasn't been close to 100% since week two. Willie Parker isn't a prototypical Steelers' back. He's not the North/South-type runner that we are accustomed too. Now, I'm not one of the Steelers' fans that complains about Parker. I happen to like his skill-set, and he's a better North/South runner than people think. That said, he's generally not a back that creates yards. He's the back that takes advantage of the slightest hole. So when the line isn't performing, and I'll get to that in a second, neither is Parker.
Then there is the offensive line. First and foremost, this line lost Alan Faneca at the beginning of the year. Faneca is as good as it gets against the run. He struggled last year against the pass, but against the run, he was the anchor. Once he was gone, there's been some time of adjustment for a line that was struggling WITH Faneca.
There's been signs of the line shoring up over the past several weeks, but let's get something straight: This line is still substandard. Center Justin Hartwig has been a stabilizing force, and Max Starks has come through at left tackle. Darnell Stapleton has played well at right guard, but let's not confuse playing well with being a line that can blow a defense off the ball, or pull, which has been a Steelers' staple for several years. They are improving, but not there yet. Combine that with personnel, and you have major issues.
My biggest beef with the run game has been the lack of commitment from offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Great offensive linemen make great offensive lines. Great offensive coordinators can make bad offensive lines look good. The Steelers have neither. Arians runs a confounding, hit and miss offense that really hasn't clicked on all cylinders in a game yet this season.
The most confounding piece to this has been his lack of commitment to running the football. Truth be told, I'm not sure if the run game COULD be successful since Arians rarely commits to anything as the game progresses. Some would say he's basing it off of the weak line and lack of a healthy runner. That's garbage. Arians is a reactionary coach, and you need a proactive coach to win football games. At the end of the day, if Arians would commit to running the ball 30-40 times a game with Gary Russell, Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore...they would ultimately wear down a defense, and make the passing game more effective. See the 2007 team for a better example.
I suppose that's just a long-winded way to say the line needs improved, the runners need to stay healthy, and they need to commit to the run.
2.Hines Ward: "dirty" player or helluva competitor?
Hines Ward is the definition of the player you love to have on your team, and love to hate on the other team. He's about as aggressive a player as I've ever seen, and that's saying a lot when you take into account the players that have played for the Steelers' defense over the years. I think back to guys like Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene...two guys that had a motor that ran at 110%, and never stopped until the game was over, and they were in the locker room. They were often called "dirty" players because the flat out smacked you in the mouth. Ward is the same type of player...the difference being that he plays offense.
Truth be told, to define a dirty player, I think you would have to say that player purposefully goes out and tries to hurt someone else.I firmly believe that Ward doesn't do that. Sure, he'll lay you out with a block. Sure, he'll get in your face. I firmly believe that he doesn't do any of it out of maliciousness, but out of an intrinsic desire to win.
He'll smack you in the mouth. He'll block you, and his motor doesn't stop until the game is over. He mouth doesn't stop either. I can't think of a team that wouldn't want a player like Ward. Combine his tenacity with his ability to catch the ball, and you have a hall of famer, which he surely is. I think back over the years, and can honestly say that Ward has won games nearly as much with his blocking, as he has with his pass catching, and if he can get into your heads, that much better.
3. Let's play the hypothetical game. Put yourself in Jeff Fisher's shoes for a moment. What's the best way to attack Pittsburgh's vaunted #1 ranked defense?
I have to tell you...this is one defense that I'm glad I don't have to go up against. In the past, Steelers' defenses have been prone to give up the underneath stuff that a West Coast Offense is good at attacking. Offenses would dink and dunk the Steelers to death, forcing Troy Polamalu and whoever was his counterpart at the time, to hedge against the run, which would then open up big plays.
Those days are pretty much over with the Steelers five top-notch linebackers. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are so adept at rushing the passer, that their coverage has been overlooked. Harrison has been everywhere, which is why he's likely to nail down the defensive player of the year. Woodley is mammoth at 260+, but still can drop back when necessary.
Probably the biggest addition to this linebacking corp has been last year's first-round pick, Lawrence Timmons. This kid has more athletic ability than all the Steelers' linebackers, and that's saying something. He's got blistering speed, but has really been able to take away big chunks underneath, during the passing game.
Combine this with safeties Ryan Clark and of course, Troy Polamalu, who both are 100% this year, and you have a whole bunch of trouble for the teams trying to dink and dunk. These two can play up, and have enough to get back when they need to. In particular, Polamalu, who is in his prime. He's such a run stopper, and leading the league in picks as well.
The corners go four deep. Ike Taylor is having a pro bowl worthy season, and Bryant McFadden, their other starter, was better than Taylor before an injury kept him out of several games. He's back now, but not before William Gay and Deshea Townsend stepped in and were nearly as good as McFadden and Taylor.
Aaron Smith, their unheralded defensive end, has even dropped into coverage adeptly this year.You combine that with a defense that destroys the run, and you have something incredibly special. I haven't even mentioned their depth. They are five deep on the defensive line, five deep at the linebacker slot, four deep at corner, and four deep at safety.
So, if I'm Jeff Fisher, what do I do? Pray. I would run as much as I can...whether it works or not. I'd do everything I possible could to wear down the Steelers' defense. I'd hammer the Steelers' defense with Chris Johnson and LenDale White. I'd throw as much as I can to Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler to move the chains.
They have to control the clock, keep the game close, and hope they can wear the defense down so they might make mistakes. They also have to take advantage of all their red zone opportunities. The Steelers have allowed other teams into the red zone, but are amazingly good at stopping other teams from scoring touchdowns once there.
4. Bill Cowher was a great coach but Mike Tomlin has done a solid job of following in his footsteps so far. What's your take on Tomlin?
I've been a Tomlin backer since his name first surfaced for the job. The best word I can think of to describe Tomlin is a word that you could use to describe Bill Cowher before him, and Chuck Noll before Cowher, and that's PRESENCE. Mike Tomlin has it when he walks into a room, into a locker room, or onto a football field.
Tomlin is all about respect. He demands it from his players, and gives it to those that give it to him. Here's a guy that was trained under Tony Dungy (a Chuck Noll disciple, by the way), and carries himself a lot like the elder statesman. The bottom line of all this is that Mike Tomlin understands the game of football, understands how to handle players, and has all the qualities that a Steelers football coach needs.
Case in point was last week when running back Willie Parker was running his mouth to the press about how the Steelers weren't running the ball like the Steelers. Tomlin addressed it with the media immediately. Tomlin mentioned that when he walked into the Steelers' offices, he walked by five Vince Lombardi trophies, not five rushing title trophies. He emphasized that it's about winning football games, not rushing titles.
But the brilliance came with the next statement. He told the media that Parker wasn't a selfish player, and hoped that he wouldn't be perceived as one with the comments.
Ultimately, in Steelers' football, you are weighed against those Lombardi trophies, so until he gets one, he certainly isn't as good as Cowher and especially Noll. I firmly believe he'll get one...and it might be this year.
5. Prediction time! Who will win this Sunday's AFC showdown and why?
This is an interesting game. The Steelers have beaten the Patriots, Cowboys and Ravens in back to back to back weeks, and have soared into the "Best team in football" conversations. The Titans are struggling, and have lost Albert Haynesworth. I think it will be a close game because it's in Tennessee...but here's the key...
Kerry Collins isn't a good quarterback when he has to move out of the pocket. Against the Steelers, he'll have to move out of the pocket. Look for the Steelers' defense to slam the door shut on the Titans offense. Without Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch on the defensive side of the ball, I think you'll see Roeth upright. If that's the case, you'll see the Steelers' offense play a bit better than in the past weeks.
Look for the Steelers to win...24-10
Coming up tomorrow: part II of our Q&A exchange.