By Scott Brown
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
No one can question the Steelers' talent or effort -- with the exception of the first few minutes against the Broncos on Sunday.
That the Steelers straggle into the halfway point of their season at 2-6 shows they are seriously flawed.
When the offense plays well, the defense seems to falter and vice versa. The one thing the Steelers have done on a consistent basis is commit a special teams gaffe that factors heavily in a close loss.
Put it all together, and it's easy to see why the reigning Super Bowl champions are virtually out of the playoff hunt -- and why their midseason report card isn't something that will be displayed proudly on refrigerators.
Whether it's off the field or on it, Ben Roethlisberger often has Steelers fans holding their collective breath.
He's lost six of seven starts this season -- after winning 27 of his first 31 -- and has twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdown passes.
Roethlisberger gets a bit of a pass, considering everything he's been through and because he's only 24 and has shown glimpses of greatness.
Charlie Batch has played so well as a backup, more than a few wondered why he didn't start against the Raiders after Roethlisberger sustained a concussion the previous week.
Running backs: C+
Willie Parker is third in the NFL with eight touchdowns and is on pace for over 1,200 rushing yards.
What should have been a breakout season has been marred by road games in which he's been non-existent -- 67 rushing yards combined against Jacksonville and Atlanta.
He also had a bad fumble against the Falcons and didn't look for the ball in the flat on a fourth-down play in Oakland when the Steelers needed a touchdown to tie the game.
Najeh Davenport has shown he can be a capable backup, but his false-start penalty late in the game against the Raiders is part of a litany of mistakes that have doomed the Steelers.
Wide receivers/tight ends: C
Their play has improved as the season's progressed, and Hines Ward's hamstring ceased being an issue about a month ago.
The four-time Pro Bowler is averaging just over 110 receiving yards the past four games, and split ends Cedric Wilson and Santonio Holmes have complemented Ward, while Nate Washington has produced some big plays.
However, the wideouts have made some killer mistakes, notably Washington's "flinch" in Atlanta and the lost fumbles by Wilson and Ward in the Broncos game.
And take away Health Miller's 87-yard touchdown reception against the Dolphins, and the tight end has been a non-factor in the passing game.
Offensive line: C
The Steelers returned every starter from last year, which makes the uneven performances turned in by this group all the more mystifying.
The line has been physically handled at times this season, including twice from inside the Raiders' 2 late in that 20-13 loss.
Perhaps an even bigger indictment of the line's play: Coach Bill Cowher said the Steelers went into the Broncos game with the plan of passing the ball to set up the run.
When the Steelers are good, it's because they are able to impose their will on the opposition and run the ball. That starts up front.
Defensive line: B
The Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since last November.
Take away the 72 yards wide receiver Javon Walker picked up on a reserve Sunday, and the Broncos, who run the ball well on everybody, rushed for just 43 yards.
Ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith, along with tackle Casey Hampton, could do a better job of generating pressure on the quarterback.
The most feared player in the NFL? Joey Porter may not be the most feared linebacker on his team.
Whether it's the Sports Illustrated cover jinx at work or something else, Porter has disappeared at times this season. He's averaging just four tackles a game, though he does have four sacks and a pair of interceptions.
James Farrior and Larry Foote have been a formidable duo inside, and outside linebacker Clark Haggans leads the Steelers with five sacks.
Teams have gone after Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor and will continue to do so after watching what Denver did to the Steelers starting cornerbacks.
Bryant McFadden had every opportunity to unseat Townsend when the latter got hurt, but he wasn't able to do it.
As good as Troy Polamalu is, the All-Pro safety has been prone to overpursuing, which he did against Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on a critical third-down play in overtime and also on Walker's long touchdown run Sunday.
Special teams: F
Nothing probably bothers Cowher more about the Steelers' first eight games than their special teams play.
If the Steelers had been merely average in this area, they would probably have two more wins.
Instead, everything is an adventure with the special teams. Actually, misadventure is more like it.
The Steelers have lost costly fumbles on punt and kickoff returns and have allowed three kickoff returns of more than 50 yards.
Cowher can be second-guessed about a number of things this season, ranging from his use of timeouts in the Atlanta game to his handling of the quarterback situation.
The Steelers' rash of turnovers -- they have 24 already, exceeding their total from all of last season -- and the lack of on-field discipline -- foolish unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. And it all points to a lack of focus.
How much that has to do with Cowher's uncertain status beyond this season is anybody's guess. Still, he is ultimately accountable for such mistakes, and the Steelers haven't won back-to-back games this season.