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Tomlin Report - End of the Season Edition

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Pittsburgh's unexpected first-round loss to Denver knocked them out of the playoffs and into the offseason.

The Steelers will have a number of issues to address over the next few months as they regroup and reload for another slate of sixteen games (and hopefully more) in 2012.

LAST WEEK
Steelers:  Tim Tebow hooked up for an 80-yard score to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime, and the Steelers fell to the Broncos 29-23 in Denver. Thomas abused Ike Taylor all afternoon, racking up 204 yards on four catches. Isaac Redman was outstanding in a losing effort with 121 yards in his postseason debut.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES
A Look Around the AFC North
Cleveland (4-12) owns the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, as well as a late first-round pick acquired from the Atlanta Falcons (22nd overall), which is all well and good because the Browns have a number of holes to fill.

Defensively, Cleveland could draft an outside linebacker to play next to D’Qwell Jackson, who capped off an impressive season in the middle. The Browns could also use a playmaking safety on the back end. Cleveland could look to add to its defensive line with the Falcons’ pick, which would only add to the defense’s biggest strength from this past season.

Offensively, there’s a lot of work to do. Other than the offensive line – which is by far the team’s best overall unit – the Browns have holes or concerns at every level. Greg Little looks like a contributor at wide receiver, but he was wildly inconsistent in his rookie season and the team still need another viable option in the passing game. Running back could be a priority if Peyton Hillis ends up leaving for greener pastures. Additionally, the quarterback position is not as set as it was going into last season. Colt McCoy struggled in 2011 and has no claim on the starting job next season. Could the Browns pick up a quarterback with either of their first round picks?

Baltimore (12-4) has a good matchup defensively in their playoff opener. The Houston Texans’ strength, the running game, plays right into the hands of Baltimore’s second-ranked run defense. Additionally, the Texans will be under the command of an undrafted rookie quarterback. While that rookie, T.J. Yates, has played well for them, he still lacks experience and is going into a playoff battle against one of the league’s best defensive outfits.

Cincinnati (9-7) couldn’t beat Houston on wild-card weekend, losing to the Texans 31-10. The Bengals kept it close for much of the first half, but Andy Dalton’s interception at the hands of DE J.J. Watt was returned for a touchdown and the team never recovered. Dalton would throw three picks in the loss.

Defensively, the Bengals’ normally stout run defense couldn’t contain running back Arian Foster, who racked up 153 yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon.

The Bengals will own the 21st selection in the upcoming NFL draft. Holes to fill as of this writing include: offensive line, cornerback, and safety.

MIKE LIKED…
Although he’s not happy with being out of the playoffs so soon, he is excited to move on and start the process of building for 2012. He says that that process starts immediately.

“Formally and informally it starts immediately. I think that’s how we are wired. I love what I do. The wheels continue to turn, and it’s time to start building for 2012. Informally it’s already started. That’s what this thing is all about.”

THE GOOD
Aside from the meltdown by Ike Taylor (by far the worst game of his career) against the Broncos in the playoffs, the secondary as a whole was one of the team’s biggest strengths. It was a little surprising, considering that many critics felt that the secondary would be the unit holding the team back in 2011. Ike was lights out in the regular season; William Gay and Keenan Lewis had career-saving years; and the safety tandem of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark was a major positive for the team. What’s more, young players like Ryan Mundy, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown could start making major contributions as early as next season.

Antonio Brown’s emergence as one of the offense’s (and special teams’) most important players earned him the team MVP award. Not bad for a guy who looked like he would be Pittsburgh’s fourth wideout coming off of last year. Brown was unbelievable in August’s training camp, a performance that translated into a regular season that saw him become the 1B to Mike Wallace’s 1A. If Mike Wallace can figure out why he declined in the second half and Emmanuel Sanders can shake off some nagging injuries, the trio of Wallace-Brown-Sanders could be a nightmare for opposing defenses.

A number of young players stepped up in emergency roles or took a step forward in a more regular role this season. Offensively, Brown and running back Isaac Redman made major contributions to the team’s offense. Redman, in particular, looked sharp in his postseason debut and may have earned a larger share of the carries. Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky, and rookie Marcus Gilbert all logged major minutes on the offensive line and all figure to be in the team’s plans in 2011.

Defensively, Ziggy Hood and rookie Cameron Heyward received a significant amount of playing time that will only help the development of each. While they’re still a while away from being as dominant as the Aaron Smith/Brett Keisel tandem, they are showing improvement each week. Steve McLendon also stepped up in the middle, manning the nose thanks to injuries to Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. Jason Worilds managed to get healthy and took a major leap forward as a pass rusher in the second half of the season. He’ll team with rookie Chris Carter – who should take a step of his own – to give the team a valuable pair of backups. Cortez Allen and Ryan Mundy both helped out in the secondary and didn’t look out of place. Curtis Brown and Stevenson Sylvester were big factors in the turn-around of the punt/kick coverage units and could be in line for defensive time down the road.

For the first time in a long time, Pittsburgh’s work on special teams wasn’t a major liability. Antonio Brown gave this team an all-around return-man, one who runs out strong averages while also serving as a home-run threat. The coverage units, much maligned in years past, took a major step forward and severely limited opposing return-men. Jeremy Kapinos improved as a punter from last year, and could be in the team’s plans in 2011. Shaun Suisham was the unit’s least valuable member and led Pittsburgh to a tie for last place in field goal percentage (74.2%), but he was perfect on his kicks in the playoffs.

THE BAD
Ben Roethlisberger had a bit of an off year in 2011, a season that got further off track the deeper the Steelers went into it. He committed a large chunk of the team’s turnovers and spent the second half of the season missing his deep receivers (one reason why Wallace’s number declined in the second half). His accuracy and decision making need to improve if this team wants to get back on track. He also needs to find a way to stay healthy, as his 2011 campaign was as injury-marred as they come.

The team’s linebackers, one of the most expensive units on the team, had an off-year. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley both managed to notch nine sacks on the season, but neither was able to stay healthy or stay consistent. Both were terrible from a pass-rushing perspective on the road, a big reason why the team only netted eight sacks outside of Heinz Field. Additionally, Lawrence Timmons had an up-and-down season. In some games, he was absolutely dominant. In others, he was downright invisible. This could be an aberration though, as he spent a chunk of the 2011 season playing out of position to cover for injuries.

The Steelers ground attack, already an issue for the past few seasons, took a step back in 2011. Rashard Mendenhall had a few bright spots this past season, but spent most of his afternoons inexplicably backing in to opposing defenders. Additionally, he broke off very few long runs over the course of the season – something that used to be a strength of his. While the constantly shuffled offensive line had something to do with his production, it must be noted that Isaac Redman ran much better behind the same line.

THE UGLY
The team’s performance on the road was a major issue all season. The defense gave up roughly eight more points to opponents on the road than at home. The offense scored roughly ten less points outside of Heinz Field. Additionally, the team’s pass protection and pass rush both suffered sharp declines away from home.

Injuries. A whole lot of injuries. The injury bug ravaged the entire Steelers team in 2011, causing issues in every unit. Ben Roethlisberger suffered multiple injuries that limited his effectiveness as the season wore on. The offensive line was essentially a revolving door that kept on spinning in the team’s playoff loss. Nine players logged significant minutes on the offensive line, with a number of them jumping from position to position to fill holes. Wide receivers Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery, and Emmanuel Sanders all had time off with injuries. Running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, and Jonathan Dwyer were all unavailable in the playoffs, leaving the rushing duties to Isaac Redman and a pair of undrafted backs with little to no experience.

Defensively, the team lost Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke for a majority of the season. Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton also missed games and were hurt again in the playoff loss to Denver. The team’s top-three outside linebackers – James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Jason Worilds – all missed chunks of the season, forcing inside backer Lawrence Timmons to shift outside to fill holes, which was a problem because James Farrior also missed time on the inside. The secondary went relatively untouched for most of the season, but late injuries to rookies Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown left the team a little thin come playoff time.

Add in the fact that the special teams unit lost Daniel Sepulveda to yet another knee injury, and it’s easy to see that the bug bit unusually hard.

The playoff game and the season were marked by inconsistencies and issues on the part of the coaching staff (and Ben Roethlisberger). To give an example: prior to overtime, the Steelers had a chance to drive and kick a game-winning field goal. Like a number of similar drives this season, it fell short because of wasted time and odd-decision making. Tomlin, the coordinators, and Ben need to get on the same page. Establish protocols for using timeouts and clarify how the two-minute offense needs to be run. No more 25-second runoffs with two timeouts left in a crucial possession. No more dumpoffs to the running back when the team needs to advance the ball. No more sacks by the quarterback when the team is in field goal range.

That goes for the other 56 minutes of the game, too. This team needs to cut down on coach/quarterback decision making blunders. One of my own personal biggest pet peeves this past season was Ben’s tendency to burn timeouts in the first/third quarters, leaving them with little to work with when time starts running short.

Shaun Suisham may have been perfect in the postseason, but he was dreadful on field goals during the regular season. A 74.2% conversion rate during the regular season should send the Steelers looking for a new kicker.

2011 MVPs
Offense: Antonio Brown, WR – Mike Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger had their moments, but Brown was consistently a threat all season. He took hold of one of the starting jobs and kept on improving as the year wore on.

Defense: Ike Taylor, CB– Outside of the playoff game, Ike Taylor was phenomenal in 2011. He became the type of shutdown corner the team hasn’t had in years and severely limited the impact of opponent’s top wideouts. He should come back hungrier after his playoff disappointment.

Special Teams: Antonio Brown, KR/PR – His trip to the Pro Bowl was well-deserved. Brown put up great averages on both kickoffs and punts, and capped things off with a touchdown return late in the season. He became the first player in NFL history with 1,000 return yards and 1,000 receiving yards. Unfortunately, his importance as a receiver could mean he takes a lesser role on special teams next season.

NEXT YEAR’S SCHEDULE
Home:Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins

Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys

ACCORDING TO TOMLIN
“That’s a human response, but not for long. You can’t have those moments and do what we are trying to do, which of course is to win. Injuries are a part of the game. You aren’t going to be so fortunate that you don’t have to deal with them. We dealt with them to the best of our abilities, and it is what it is. We feel like we are fully capable of playing winning football with the men that we had out there last night, and obviously we didn’t do the job.” Discussing whether the pile-up of injuries, especially to veteran players, had an impact on the playoff game.

“A quick assessment of some injuries, we had three significant ones in the game. Max Starks had an ACL injury of some description. He is getting that looked at here today to determine whether or not surgery will be required. Same can be said for Casey Hampton. He has an ACL injury. He will be evaluated today to see if he will require surgery. Brett Keisel has a significant groin injury. He’s getting that looked at today to see if he will need surgery. All the other injuries you know about.” On the latest injuries suffered this season. All three players will require surgery. Additionally, Maurkice Pouncey and Doug Legursky could be candidates for surgery to clear up lingering issues.

“I anticipate it, but of course we all understand what the end of the season is about, and movement is a part of it in today’s NFL for players and coaches. We are going to try to maintain continuity like we always do. We believe that is a benefit to us, but we also understand that things can happen, and we will deal with those as they arrive.” When asked if he anticipates both coordinators, Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau, returning to the team in 2012.

Such is life in the NFL. We have a great deal of respect for Taylor and what he’s willing to do for us. That’s one of the guys that I think about when I talk about what the group is willing to do for us. Week-in and week-out he’s willing to step in and accept the challenge of covering tough receivers. Guys like Lawrence Timmons, who will play anywhere we ask them to play, due to injuries to other players, I just like the contributions of all the men.” On the stark contrast between Ike Taylor’s play in the regular season and the horrific game he went through in the playoff loss to Denver.

LOOK FOR…
The Steelers to make a number of tough cuts during the offseason. Projections have the Steelers at $20 million over the salary cap or more for the 2012 season.

SPLASH TALK
“None. Not from a coaches perspective. Not from a staff building perspective. None.  Of course just in terms of hearing his opinion from a players-coach relationship, the same amount of say that you give anybody that is in a significant position of contribution to our football team.” On how much of a say quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have in whether the team will bring back offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

“There’s always going to be changes. There are changes every year. I am not going to sit here and pretend like there’s not going to be changes. To what extent, at this point I am not ready to address. That’s why I enjoy these journeys. They are precious. At the end of this thing, the wheels do continue to turn. There will be some changes. We will see where this all takes us. Right now, I just have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the men in that room and what they are willing to do for us this year.” When asked if the identity of the team is changing.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM…
These were the most telling stats to come out of the playoff weekend:

The Steelers gave up only two pass plays longer than 40 yards all season. Against the Broncos, they gave up three.

Additionally, Demaryius Thomas racked up over 200 yards against a defense that didn’t give up a 100-yard receiver during the regular season.

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