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Six Points... on the loss to the Texans

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This game made Pittsburgh’s 2008 draft look even worse. Sixth-round pick Mike Humpal couldn’t make the team as a rookie, but no one was going to miss a sixth-round pick in the long run. When Bruce Davis failed to make the team out of training camp in his second year though, Pittsburgh lost a third-round pick in the same draft.

Offensive lineman Tony Hills (fourth round) and wideout Limas Sweed (second round) were given every chance to succeed up to and including this year’s training camp before the team finally gave them the axe.

When the season started, the 2008 draft crop was reduced to three players: a serviceable backup safety in Ryan Mundy (sixth round); an athletic, inaccurate third-string quarterback in Dennis Dixon (fifth round); and the team’s leading rusher last season, Rashard Mendenhall (first-round).

Mendenhall was at the head of a crop of value-rich selections. Like many of the other players selected by Pittsburgh, the runner wasn’t expected to be there when the team made its pick. I hated the pick at the time but talked myself into approving it based on value alone.

Since his selection, Rashard has generated one solid season (1,108 yards and a 4.6 average in 2009) and one fantasy-productive season (1,273 yards, a 3.9 average, and 13 TDs on 324 carries in 2010). His 2011 season, so far, has been terrible (and that’s being kind).

Of course, some of that can be blamed on the always-shuffled, never talent-rich offensive line. And yet, the running game flourished in a way it hasn’t all season when Isaac Redman toted the ball in the second half. Yes, the blocking was better for Redman than it was for Mendenhall before his injury. There’s no denying that.

All the same, Redman has the type of running style that this team needs. He picks a hole and hits it with authority. Mendenhall, despite boasting great size at the position (5’10” and 225 lbs), dances in the backfield and has a terrible habit of backing in to the hole. He can be a very good back behind the right line, but he’ll never find that line in Pittsburgh.

Hindsight is 20/20, sure, but it’s clear that Pittsburgh may have had the wrong idea with their first-round selection in 2008 (or the whole draft for that matter). Mendenhall might have been classified as a value pick a few years ago, but is that really the case?

With Arian Foster (undrafted), Jamaal Charles (third round), and Michael Turner (fifth round) going 1-2-3 in rushing yards last season, was spending a first-round pick on a running back a wise investment for the Steelers?

They had an offensive line problem in 2008, too. Lo and behold, who was the next lineman off the board after Rashard? Texans left tackle Duane Brown, of course, who spent this past Sunday man-handling James Harrison and leading the way for a disgustingly-efficient Texans ground game.

So in short, the team’s last remaining hope of the 2008 draft (Mendenhall) was being overshadowed by an undrafted runner (Redman), all while a fellow 2008 draftee (Brown) was busy shutting down a former Defensive Player of the Year (Harrison) and leading the way for a 155-yard performance by yet another undrafted back (Foster).

Ouch.
Photo by: Charles LeClaire
I can’t get over how well the secondary has played recently. Sure, they were torched in the first half of the Ravens game as a hobbled Bryant McFadden was repeatedly picked on by Joe Flacco. With McFadden on the sidelines in the past few games, the starting foursome has looked outstanding.

Ike Taylor is playing at an All-Pro level. Troy Polamalu looks like the Polamalu of old, moving around and mixing his coverage with some well-timed blitzes. Ryan Clark is playing a solid game on the back end, covering for Polamalu’s freelancing like he always does. Hell, even William Gay, who looked like a lost cause coming into the season, has re-emerged as a confident and productive starter opposite Taylor.

All told, Pittsburgh has given up just 157.5 passing yards per game to opposing offenses, over twenty less yards than the second-ranked Jets. Yes, playing Tarvaris Jackson and Curtis Painter will certainly help pad the stats a little.

All the same, the secondary isn’t getting much help from the Steelers’ pass rush, which has only seven sacks this season. In week four, Matt Schaub wasn’t sacked and, actually, was barely touched all game.

Another game, another goose egg in the turnover column. No takeaways by the defense for the third time in four games. Pittsburgh as a whole has just one takeaway in the first quarter of the season, and the team badly needed that one to sneak past an under-manned Colts team and avoid a 1-3 start as opposed to a 2-2 start.

If the Steelers don’t start forcing turnovers on the defensive side of the ball, a .500 record will be the very best they can hope for.

Good Arians, Bad Arians. Both showed up on Sunday. On one hand, Pittsburgh got back to its bread-and-butter in the second half, pounding the ball down Houston’s throat with their always effectively Pike play (which involves Kemo doing what he does best: pulling from the guard position).

On the other hand, he continues to dial up empty-formations that leave his $100 million quarterback even more unprotected behind an offensive line that is already overmatched by nearly every defense it comes across. Ben has had more than his share of injury scares in the first quarter of the season, including a foot sprain suffered against Houston. If Arians doesn’t learn to protect the key cog of his offense, he’ll be preparing for a half a season’s worth of Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon behind center.

That high-priced LB corps is looking like a waste of money this season. In the past, Pittsburgh has rebuilt its LB corps on the fly, replacing great starters like Joey Porter with a next-man-up type of player like James Harrison. That system, which had been flowing well for the last two decades, seems to have gone out the window. The foursome of Harrison, Farrior, Timmons, and Woodley all have long-term deals, with the latter two signing big extensions in this past offseason.

On one hand, Timmons and Woodley have looked like All-Pro types coming into this season, and Harrison himself has been at that level for years. All the same, those big contracts might also be necessitated by the fact that the well of talent at LB is all dried up.

Since the team selected Timmons and Woodley one-two in the 2007 draft, the team has missed its mark a bit. Bruce Davis (3rd, 2008) and Thaddeus Gibson (4th, 2010) didn’t make it into their second seasons with the team. Jason Worilds is getting better month-by-month, but he hasn’t yet shown that he can develop into the next great Pittsburgh linebacker.

Stevenson Sylvester (5th, 2010) looks like the real deal and is the heir apparent to James Farrior, but what happens if Timmons and Woodley continue to disappoint like they have this season?

Timmons has looked great some weeks (Seattle/Indy) and terrible the next (Baltimore/Houston). Woodley might as well be invisible, because the only time he’s stood out to me is when he’s out of position on a big play (like he was on Arian Foster’s 42-yard touchdown).

Of course, the unit could turn things around in a flash. If they don’t, though, it will mean a lot of dead money in one area of the team.

The run defense is correctable. In fact, it’s probably one of the easier problems to fix that this team has. While losing James Harrison hurts, the Steelers can shore up on the ground just by making sure players like Woodley and Timmons remain gap-sound, something neither has done through four games.

The defensive line hasn’t looked its best through four games, but Ziggy has shown he’s a beast in the past and Cameron Heyward, who figures to get more time as the year rolls on, is getting better every day.

The question is, can Pittsburgh fix things fast enough to stop Chris Johnson on Sunday?

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