Finishing 12-4 is a pretty good seasons worth of work for any NFL team. Generally you are in the post season with a record like that. The Steelers coaches always put in a ton of hard work, usually getting to their offices in the wee hours of the morning to break down film and gameplan. It’s a thankless job in many respects because when the players don’t perform, it ultimately comes back to the coaches. When the players execute well, they are usually the first to get all the praise and all too often the positional coach is an after thought. The Steelers coaching staff had a good year in many respects, and Mike Tomlin said in his season ending press conference that he expects them to be back. Things could change though once the season is over for everyone, but initially the majority, if not all, of Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff should return for 2012. For better or worse here are our grades for them this past season.
Mike Tomlin, Head Coach: It’s hard to believe that a head coach who’s team finished 12-4 and made the playoffs again would be criticized by the fans and media. Tomlin though for all the good things that he is, motivator, players coach, and level headed also had his share of struggles. He continues to be tied at the hip to OC Bruce Arians, even with the Steelers lack of redzone efficiency again 2011. His handling of Ben Roethlisberger’s injuries this year left much to be desired as we’ve discussed here on SteelerAddicts. The use of timeouts and overall clock management before halftime and late in the game continues to be a problem as the Steelers sputtered away opportunities for points in key situations of the game. Tomlin’s job is safe, no question, but he’s got to start making the tough decisions with his players (especially Ben Roethlisberger), move on from older veterans, and do something about his game management when he’s up against the clock. Grade: B-
Bruce Arians, Offensive Coordinator: The coach that Steelers fan absolutely love to hate, Arians has his good points but also his glaring weaknesses that resurface every year. On a positive note he has a Quarterback that threw for over 4,000 yds this past season. 2 starter capable running backs, and a group of receivers that would make any coach envious. Arians normally calls a very solid game between the 20’s, mixing in all of his weapons and trying to establish the run. Still though the offense finished 14th overall in rushing, and 10th overall in passing. The most glaring defficiency comes in the redzone, where the Steelers are a less than stellar 18th overall, scoring Touchdowns just 50.91% of the time they get inside the 20 yd. line. That’s even down from 2010 when they were slightly better, scoring a Touchdown 52.46% of their redzone trips. Redzone offense is one of the most important stats you look at and the Steelers continue to be subpar, settling all too often for Field Goals. Tomlin has said he wants Arians back, and by all indications he’ll get his wish at this point, but sooner or later something has to give. Grade: C-
Dick Lebeau, Defensive Coordinator: The ageless wonder himself, Coach Dad has a passion for football and says he is coming back in 2012. His hiring of secondary coach Carnell Lake before the 2011 was a brilliant move, as the Steelers finished 1st overall vs the pass. The bread and butter of a Dick Lebeau coached defense is their ability to stop the run. This season though they fell to 8th overall in the league, and routinely had problems against teams with a strong desire to run the ball. His unit had more than it’s share of injuries this season and it was obvious in the run stopping dept. Losing guys like Woodley, Harrison, Hoke, Keisel, Hampton, and Smith all for various amounts of time is bound to cause a drop off. Normally as rock solid as they come in game planning, Coach Lebeau had a rough night at the office in the Wildcard game in Denver when his group to torched by Tim Tebow and eventually lost in overtime. Still though, he will be back, as he should, but their are serious depth issues and older players that need to be addressed. Grade: B+
John Mitchell, Assistant Head Coach & Defensive Line: Just finishing up his 18th season as the Steelers defensive line coach, John Mitchell has seen it all in the modern era of the Steelers. His group, the defensive line, was absolutely ravaged by injuries and by the time the playoffs were over he had literally 3 healthy players he could field. Losing Aaron Smith early in the year again was a blow, but then he also lost Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, for several games. Chris Hoke’s career is also most likely over with the neck injury he sustained in the Jaguars game. The most important part of a 34 defense is the line. If his group doesn’t perform the entire defense falls apart. They had their share of struggles this year with rotating personnel in and out but there were also some bright spots and young talent beginning to emerge. Grade B
Keith Butler, Linebackers: Coach Butler just finished up his 9 years with the team and is the odds on favorite to take over for Lebeau when Coach Dad finally calls it a career. He’s got probably the most glamorous position, if you can call a defense glamorous, to coach with a linebacking corp that is the heart of the defense. The linebackers make most of the tackles, get most of the sacks, and are all over the field. Butler has had his share of issues to deal with it in 2011. Injuries to James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and backup Jason Worilds, caused a shakeup of personnel and an ongoing rendition of musical chairs or ‘Where’s Waldo” when it comes to figuring out who’s playing where and for whom. There are decisions to be made with players like James Farrior and Larry Foote, and the infusion of youth and speed in the middle opposite Lawrence Timmons will be key to this group’s success in 2012. Grade: B
James Daniel, Tight Ends: With the Steelers for 8 seasons now, he is the guy responsible for Heath Miller, David Johnson, and Wes Saunders (rookie). His group combined for 67 receptions, 751 yds. and 4 Touchdowns on the year. Miller is annually one of the more underrated players at his position in the NFL, and usually Ben Roethlisberger’s security blanket. He did have his share of struggles with ball security and dealing with defenses beginning to cover him more with Safeties than Linebackers. Miller did start returning to his old form later in the season though. Look for Saunders to take on a bigger role in 2012. Everyone would like to see the Tight Ends involved more in the offense, but James Daniel can only do so much, the rest is up to Bruce Arians and Mike Tomlin. Grade: B-
Al Everest, Special Teams: Everest has been a God send to the Steelers special teams. They have improved dramatically in the 2 years he’s been on Tomlin’s staff. He’s got an electric kick returner in Antonio Brown who finished the year with over 1000 yds receiving and returning kicks. He’s also got special teams aces like Ryan Mundy, rookie Cortez Allen, Arnaz Battle, and others who have been solid in the coverage units. There were a few hiccups in 2011 with having kicks blocked but it wasn’t a killer by any means and was merely and afterthought by the time the bye week rolled around. He’s had his share of injuries though as well, losing Punter Daniel Sepulveda again for most of the season with knee problems. He’s also had to get all he can out of journeyman kicker Shaun Suisham. There will be changes to his kickers for sure in 2012 as the Steelers try and sure up the kicking game but overall Everest has done a fantastic job. Grade: A-
Sean Kugler, Offensive Line: If there is ever a guy who earns his paycheck every week on Mike Tomlin’s staff, its Sean Kugler. Since joining the Steelers 2 years ago, from Buffalo, he’s had a myriad of injuries to deal with. In 2010 he lost every player on the offensive line at some point, and normally had to rotate in players on the fly into several different positions on any given week. He had more problems to deal with in 2011 with Maurkice Pouncey was bothered by his high ankle sprain all year long. Also factor in losing newly signed Willie Colon in the first game of the season, starting a rookie at RT, and dealing with ongoing injuries and a bad temper with Chris Kemoeatu. Kugler is a motivator and an offensive line genius but his group has to got get healthy and stay together. They’ve also got to address needs at LG and LT for the future and get some additional young depth that is capable of stepping in and performing well. Grade: B- I feel compelled to notate that it’s not Kugler’s fault the injuries happen and you can only coach the players you are given. He gotten the best out of what he’s been given to work with. The offensive line is the most important position in football, without it even the world’s greatest Quarterback and Running back are rendered pedestrian at best.
Carnell Lake, Secondary: Lake did a tremendous job in his first year as an NFL assistant coach. He took a group of guys that struggled in 2010 to the leagues #1 rated pass defense. He helped improved the game of William Gay and Keenan Lewis, both were left for dead by many Steelers fans after 2010 for largely underachieving. Ike Taylor had the best season of his career, even if you factor in the bad game against the Broncos. Troy Polamalu was healthy, more or less, for the majority of the season and Ryan Clark lead the team in Tackles instead of chasing James Harrison for fines. Clark gets credit as well, as do all of the players for their hard but, but in the case of #25 we saw a guy going into more form tackling than always needing the monster, bone crushing hit. Lake has been a huge asset to the defense and I look for big things from this group as young talent starts to emerge. Grade: A
Kirby Wilson, Running Backs: Wilson’s seasonwas cut short by a terrible house fire that left him hospitalized with serious burns. He was unable to travel to Denver for the Wildcard game and has already been through at least 1 surgery from reports. We’re all praying for a speedy recovery and a return to the team in 2012. As for his players, this group’s performance is affected in large part by the offensive line. When they struggle there’s only so much a running back can do. Rashard Mendenhall had his struggles early in the season but after the bye week really started to pick up steam and run with authority. Isaac Redman made his case for more playing time as we continued to see him pick up short yardage first downs and also emerge as a very capable every down back. Injuries hit this group as well as Mendenhall tore his ACL in the regular season finale. Jonathan Dwyer was also placed on injured reserve earlier in the year and rookie Baron Batch never made it out of training camp before going on IR. This will be a fun groupo to watch and if Kirby can return to the team, he’ll have some tough decisions to make for the precious few roster spots that will be available. Grade: B-
Scottie Montgomery, Wide Receivers: Montgomery must feel like a kid in candy store with the talent he’s got to work with. Mike Wallace again went over 1,000 yds receiving and has emerged as a premier deep threat in the league. He had some struggles after the bye week, in dealing with the additional coverage teams were rolling his way and some dropped passes. That’s something that can be rectified with off season coaching and film study. Antonio Brown burst onto the scene in 2011 to also finish with more than 1,000 yds. and is arguably the most electrifying player on the team. Emmanuel Sanders, even with the foot and knee injuries he battled this year is becoming a fearless target across the middle. Of course the veteran Hines Ward’s saga is well documented, even with taking on a lesser role, Ward has been a great teacher and I’m sure has been a help to his coach. The sky is the limit with this group of players. Grade: A
Randy Fichtner, Quarterbacks: Fichtner spent his first 3 years coaching the Wide Receivers before taking over the duties as QB coach 2 year ago. Ben Roethlisberger’s year was full of injuries yet he still finished the season 324 out of 514, for 4,077 yds. passing, 21 TD’s and 14 Interceptions. Ben had a 63.2 completion percentage overall as well. The main thing that Fichtner has to try and do and get his starting Quarterback to evolve his game now and not hold onto the ball for so long. It’s the never ending saga that fans debate, and with good reason. Ben has been very successful in his 8 years with the Steelers playing the way that he plays. He’s not spring chicken anymore though and you’d like to see try and just get the ball out a second or 2 sooner and avoid the titanic hits he continues to take. Fichtner will have a role in that for sure. He’s done a great job working with Charlie Batch as well, keeping the wily old veteran in game shape and getting him enough work so he is able to step in and play well like we saw against St. Louis late in the season. There will be some changes coming in the backup roles for his guys, but I like what Fichtner has dones. Grade: A