02 Oct 2007
by Ned Macey
After a disappointing Super Bowl defense in 2006, the Steelers hoped to rebound in 2007 under new head coach Mike Tomlin. After three games, it looked like "mission accomplished," but after a disappointing Sunday in Arizona, the Steelers appear to have some of the same problems as a year ago. Meanwhile, Arizona, a sleeper team for so many years, may finally have the talent to compete for the NFC West championship. A rejuvenated offensive line and an attacking defense complete the shiny toys they have been accumulating for years.
This article should be able to write itself, since according to conventional wisdom, the Cardinals were able to spring the upset because they imported offensive coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm from Pittsburgh. The problem is that a year ago, the Steelers were undone by similar problems with those coaches on the staff.
Much of the blame for last season's mediocre finish was deservedly placed at Ben Roethlisberger's feet for his inconsistent season. Equally responsible, however, was a ground game that struggled, ranking 21st in DVOA. Willie Parker played well, but his boom-and-bust style prevents the Steelers from developing a consistent attack. Parker is hardly helped by an offensive line that no longer controls the line of scrimmage.
In the Steelers' first three games, their vaunted running game appeared to be back in form. This impressive form could have been the result of inferior opponents. The Browns, Bills, and 49ers are hardly a Murderer's Row of defenses, and all have struggled defending the run all season. Parker was averaging 5.0 yards per carry, and Najeh Davenport was dominating short-yardage situations. Things were not so rosy against a quality run defense.
To call Arizona a quality run defense is somewhat surprising but is actually not a new development. The Cardinals have had an above-average run defense DVOA each of the past three seasons. Now, these defenses were far from dominant against the run, but they certainly held their own. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast likes to attack the line of scrimmage, most notably with Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson. Eight men in the box will thwart many rushing attacks.
These complaints about the Pittsburgh running game do not mean that Parker is a bad back. The problem is that Parker struggles to gain consistent yardage on his own. Without a hole, Parker's substantial big play ability is eliminated. Parker had no real chances on Sunday. He gained only 37 yards on 19 carries. Only six carries gained as many as three yards and more than half his yards came on a 20-yard scamper.
When a team stymies the running game, the key for an offense is to make them pay in the passing game. The Steelers had some success with this on Sunday, but the passing game struggled for consistency. Ben Roethlisberger has made a career out of highly efficient play in limited numbers of throws. He did make some plays down the field this week, but was put into too many difficult situations thanks to the anemic ground attack and poor pass protection.
Roethlisberger was sacked four times. If he had been as immobile as Donovan McNabb appeared to be on Sunday night, Roethlisberger too might have gone down 11 times. The Cardinals defensive line dominated the Steelers offensive line, with pressure coming from all over. Darnell Dockett led the sack parade and provides a steady upfield rush. Since the Steelers like to throw the ball down the field, many of these sacks follow deep drops. All four cost the Steelers at least eight yards.
The easy explanation for the offensive line's struggles is the departure of Grimm. The former "Hog" on the Washington Redskins Super Bowl teams has earned almost mythic status as an offensive line guru. Nobody doubts that Grimm is a good coach, but Sunday's game was not a sign that he is a miracle worker. The Steelers line struggled last season with many of the same problems that manifested themselves against Arizona. Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times while making 469 pass attempts last season with Grimm on board.
Referring to an offensive line as a single unit is often times misleading, but on Sunday it may have been accurate. Other than Alan Fancea, who controlled Gabe Watson at the point of attack, each other player had at least one breakdown. Further, the line struggled with communication, failing to deal effectively with delayed blitzes and stunts by the defensive linemen.
On the Steelers' first four offensive drives, this poor offensive line play was implicated. They were forced to punt three times. Two of these drives featured Roethlisberger sacks, while on the third, Parker totaled one yard after runs on first and second down. The only scoring drive was the second drive of the game, which appeared equally doomed when Parker lost six yards on first down and Roethlisberger was sacked for a ten yard loss on second down. Miraculously, the Steelers responded on third-and-26, with Roethliberger throwing a touchdown to Santonio Holmes on inexplicably poor coverage by Arizona.
Admittedly, the offensive line's struggles are attributable in part to the fine play of the Arizona defense. The Cardinals often play a 3-4 base defense to defend the run and then attack the line with linebackers and/or Wilson. Dockett has certainly taken to playing defensive end in the 3-4 and is having by far his best season. He has already set a career high in sacks and is on pace to easily set a career high in tackles.
Winning a game with defense is mildly surprising because the Cardinals were supposed to be filled with offensive playmakers. This offensive juggernaut totaled only 14 points. Admittedly, Anquan Boldin was out last week, but the amount of money and draft picks used to secure Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, Edgerrin James, Bryant Johnson, and Matt Leinart was substantial. Obviously, the missing link there is a competent offensive line.
Slowly but surely, the offensive line has started to develop. The Cardinals invested a high first-round pick in Levi Brown but survived his injury on Sunday. One under-the-radar addition was Mike Gandy at left tackle. In an off-season of excess contracts for linemen, the Cardinals wisely added Mike Gandy, an adequate if not dominant tackle, for about $3 million for this season. The departed Leonard Davis, equally mediocre, got $7 million per season to play guard for the Cowboys. The line is not perfect, struggling at times up the middle, especially guard Deuce Lutui, but it definitely is providing an opportunity for the stars to make plays.
The Arizona line has a different responsibility than Pittsburgh because the Cardinals have a different style of running back in Edgerrin James. He has not been a big play threat for years but is better able to make positive plays if given even a sliver of an opening. A season ago, particularly in the first half of the year, that sliver was rarely there, and James was not productive. This season, James is not exactly setting the world on fire, but he is consistently putting the Cardinals in manageable third-down situations. 12 of James' 21 attempts garnered at least three yards, and two other runs gained a first down or touchdown. Keep in mind, the Steelers front seven should be vastly superior to the Cardinals.
Of course, the most interesting story for the Cardinals may be their odd quarterback time-share. Over the past two games, Leinart and Kurt Warner have roughly split the snaps behind center. We have no recent precedent for such an arrangement to intelligently analyze its merits, but this is the Internet, so why not try anyway?
Currently, the Cardinals tend to play heavy sets with Leinart in the game and go to four wide receivers with Warner. Presumably, Whisenhunt knows the relative strengths of his own players and is playing them where they feel comfortable. Leinart sat out for much of the second and third quarter but returned and played well in the fourth, dispelling some worries that the platoon would make the quarterbacks lose rhythm.
Intellectually, anyway, the job-share is certainly an intriguing idea. The Cardinals have two good but not great quarterbacks with different skill sets, so why not put in two different types of offenses for them to run and require opposing teams to scheme for both of them? The problem, of course, will be managing the egos and expectations. The system calls for rampant second-guessing both by the media and within their own clubhouse. If Leinart had struggled in the fourth, it would have been a field day for sports radio but a tense situation in Arizona. If Whisenhunt can manage the personalities, then he is making the right choice. If placating the personalities were easily done, I suspect more people would consider a quarterback platoon.
Whisenhunt's handling of the quarterback situation could determine the Cardinals' fate, as they have the pieces to compete in a mediocre NFC West. They feature a decent defense and a decent offense. That combination might only be good enough for last place in a more competitive division but should have them nipping at the heels of the Seahawks all season in their own division.
In Pittsburgh, this game highlights that this team is far from perfect, but they should remain among the game's elite. The difference-making play in this game was a punt return for a touchdown by Steve Breaston that came after a Pittsburgh penalty nullified good punt coverage. The defense remained stout throughout, and the offensive struggles can at least be partially explained by the absence of Hines Ward. The continued development of Holmes is certainly a positive note going forward.
Still, the Steelers are going to have problems with negative plays all season thanks to their offensive line. Roethlisberger will be sacked and pressured into bad throws. Parker will be stuffed in the backfield. All the Russ Grimms in the world would not help since the same things happened time and again a season ago.
The good news is that the Steelers' remaining schedule features only two teams that currently have winning records, and struggles in Baltimore and Cincinnati make what seemed like a highly-competitive division much less daunting. Even after a loss in Arizona, the Steelers should remain favorites to win their division, although they appear to still be a step below the top AFC teams in Indianapolis and New England.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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