By Michael David Smith
When Sports Illustrated published its NFL midseason report on November 15, the cover featured Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress and the headline said, "Steelers Back on Top." But open to the inside of the magazine and you find that no Steelers made the midseason All-Pro team. How could the top team in the league fail to have a single player who was the best at his position? Could it be that the Steelers have emulated the Patriots, and are loading up on good players without breaking the bank to sign any great ones? And if so, who are the good players who have turned the Steelers into what many consider to be the best team in the league?
I watched every play of the Steelers-Jaguars Sunday night game to find out, and I kept my eye out for players who made big contributions without receiving much attention.
The first thing that struck me was the middle of the offensive line. Center Jeff Hartings, left guard Alan Faneca, and right guard Keydrick Vincent are an incredible trio. Their work was best illustrated on the Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Jay Riemersma with 11:47 left in the second quarter. On that play Jacksonville tried to capitalize on the strength of its defensive line, which is the ability of its defensive tackles (6-foot-6 Marcus Stroud and 6-foot-7 John Henderson) to disrupt a quarterback's throwing lanes. The Jaguars ran an inside stunt, but Hartings, Faneca, and Vincent showed great discipline, staying in position and preventing any penetration. Roethlisberger had no trouble finding Riemersma over the middle for the touchdown. (Jacksonville complained that the pass should have been ruled incomplete, and I think the Jaguars were right, but that doesn't do anything to negate the quality of the blocking.)
On running plays the offensive line employs many of the counters and pulls that Joe Gibbs and Joe Bugel used so successfully in Washington in the 1980s and are trying to use again today. That's no surprise because the Steelers' offensive line coach, Russ Grimm, was one of the top linemen on those Redskins teams. Gibbs hasn't fared well in his Washington return, but his blocking schemes are still solid. I especially like the way Faneca pulls in short-yardage situations.
I've heard some people claim that the Steelers' offensive line has allowed Roethlisberger to be sacked too often. I disagree. The line gives Roethlisberger good protection, but the rookie still needs work identifying blitzes. On a 3rd-and-6 sack with 7:41 left in the game, Jacksonville rushed seven against six Steelers blockers, and Roethlisberger's inability to get rid of the ball took the Steelers out of field goal range. He needs to learn that when seven are coming, he's got to throw the ball -- and there's a good chance someone will be open.
Last week in this space we discussed how the Colts' offensive line sells play-action passes, and the Steelers' line does some of the same things. On the Steelers' first pass Hartings sold the play action, sprinting right as Roethlisberger faked a handoff to the right and then rolled left. (On a Duce Staley eight-yard run during the same drive, Hartings made a big block on middle linebacker Mike Peterson. I've been a Hartings fan for years; he was the best lineman on the Lions during the Bobby Ross era, but for some reason Matt Millen let him leave as an unrestricted free agent.)
I'll never understand why linemen don't get more attention from the television announcers. Sometimes announcers hype the stars so relentlessly that they give us an inaccurate description of what happened on the field. On a Jerome Bettis eight-yard run on the last play of the first quarter, Mike Patrick said on ESPN, "The Bus takes off, dragging people with him." Actually, Bettis didn't have to drag anyone because of the huge hole on the left side of the line created by Hartings, Faneca, and left tackle Marvel Smith.
But as much as I like Hartings, Faneca, and Vincent -- and I also like the lead blocking of fullback Dan Kreider -- the real strength of the Steelers is their defense. My favorite player on the unit is lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen. On one Fred Taylor run, von Oelhoffen pushed Jaguars tackle Ephraim Salaam back with such force that Taylor couldn't get out of the way and lost three yards. On another run von Oelhoffen tackled Taylor for a loss of seven. The guy is a Hawaii native and he's in his 11th year. Can we all agree to vote for him for the Pro Bowl?
Before the season I thought nose tackle Casey Hampton and inside linebacker Kendrell Bell were the two best players on the Steelers' defense. But Hampton has missed six games, Bell has missed nine, and the defense looks like the reincarnation of the Steel Curtain.
I think the biggest reason is Chris Hoke, who has filled in for Hampton at nose tackle and who I must confess I had never even heard of until last week. But I won't soon forget the way he fought through blocks and made a tackle, stuffing Taylor for a loss of a yard on a second-quarter run. ESPN decided to have Jacksonville center Brad Meester wear a microphone, but they didn't play as much of the on-field audio as they usually do. That's probably because Meester said something ESPN couldn't air every time Hoke beat him, and Hoke beat him often. At 296 pounds, he's at least 30 pounds lighter than Hampton. But he's nearly as good at clogging the inside, and he's better than Hampton at moving laterally to help on runs to the outside. Hoke was on the Steelers' roster for three seasons without playing in a game, but now that he's finally getting his chance he's making the most of it.
Filling in for Bell has been Larry Foote, the third-year man out of Michigan who's in his first season as a starter. Foote often comes out on passing downs, but against the run he's as good an inside linebacker as I've seen this year. To put it another way, a few weeks ago I watched Ray Lewis on every play. If I hadn't known in advance which one is the star and which one is the no-name, I wouldn't have guessed from watching them play.
What's fascinating about the Steelers is the way they're able to avoid allowing big passing plays, even though their secondary looks slow to me. The reason is the pass rush, led by linebacker Clark Haggans, who made a nice move knocking the ball out of Leftwich's hand on second-and-goal late in the third quarter. Troy Polamalu and DeShea Townsend looked to me Sunday night like they could be the slowest safety and cornerback, respectively, in the league, but they're also among the hardest hitters. Polamalu actually looks like he might be better suited to play linebacker, although Steelers fans assure me I'm wrong about Polamalu's speed. He plays well in run support but he's a little out of control when he blitzes.
The Steelers' fastest defensive back, Ike Taylor, doesn't play much in the base defense, but he's excellent in punt coverage. He's in his second season out of Louisiana-Lafayette, and I have a question for all the Ragin' Cajun fans out there: How the hell did any team throw the ball on these guys two years ago? Charles Tillman, also in his second year out of Louisiana-Lafayette, is one of the best corners in the league. Is it possible that ULaLa (pronounced ooh-la-la) had the best defensive backfield in the country in 2002?
My only complaint about how the Steelers played Sunday is their handling of the end of the game. Peter King wrote this week that "Bill Cowher handled the clock perfectly in the fourth quarter," but I disagree. Roethlisberger spiked the ball on second down with 23 seconds left, when, as FO commenter B pointed out this week, he should have taken a knee on second down, then spiked the ball on third down with about four seconds left. That would have allowed the Steelers to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired, rather than forcing them to kick back to Jacksonville with 18 seconds left.
And that kick leads me to my other complaint. The Steelers employed a squib kick, which went only to the 16-yard line and which Greg Jones returned 23 yards. Giving the Jaguars the ball on the 39-yard line allowed them to run one play, get into field-goal range, and attempt the game-winning kick, which just missed. The Steelers had kicked off three times in the game before then, and those kicks were returned to the 21, 27, and 27 yard lines. Why change strategy when what you're doing is working?
But I don't want to criticize; I want to praise. The Steelers have built a roster of spare parts and turned it into a championship contender. This is starting to become a common occurrence.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing Contact Us.