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Joe Starkey on the Steelers

February 18, 2012

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribine-Review on the Steelers:

First, can you tell readers about your work – how it’s going and what should readers expect in 2012?

I’m doing two columns a week for Trib and fielding angry callers’ rants 2-6 p.m. daily on 93.7 The Fan. Hopefully, both will continue into foreseeable future!
 
What are your thoughts on Mike Tomlin’s involvement (or supposed lack thereof) in the Haley hiring? How involved was Tomlin in Haley’s hire and why was he reluctant to let Arians go?

I believe that Mike Tomlin had autonomy in choosing his new offensive coordinator. I also believe that left to his own devices, he would have kept Arians but that he wasn’t willing to go to the mat to keep him around.

Nobody has the cold, hard facts in how the Arians firing went down, and the Steelers have not shed any light on it. My sense is that Art Rooney II wanted to see a change and that Tomlin said OK and went about finding a replacement. I do not believe it made Tomlin look weak or will affect his status with the franchise. I think he’ll be re-signed as coach and be here for a long time. But, again, I believe he would have kept Arians here if not for a nudge from above.
 
From your perspective, what are the first things Haley can do to make “easy fixes” to the offense, and do you think he and Ben will have any issues agreeing on those fixes?

Can Haley give Ben short fields to work with, replace Kemoeatu, make sure a competent left tackle is in place and prevent Ben from another high-ankle sprain? Those are the major fixes I’m looking at (Max Starks did a great job, by the way, and the Steelers got lucky that he was ready to play after not practicing for nearly a year, but, really, that was their best idea a quarter of the way into the season, was to pull a guy off a couch in Arizona?).

Everybody is fixated on shorter passes and getting rid of the ball quicker. Did they ever think that defensive coordinators might be thinking about that, too, and might want to take away those options? “Just do what you did against the Titans and New England!” Oh, OK, we’ll just recreate those games. Never mind that Tennessee had maybe the worst pass rush in pro football and that New England’s wasn’t appreciably better. Ben picked those teams apart with short passes, proving that when that option is available, he is more than willing and able to play that kind of game.

That option isn’t always available. Take the KC game, for example. Tamba Hali ruined Starks. Leaks all over the place. Ben was under seige on nearly every drop back. If you’re the defensive coordinator, might you be saying, “Hey, let’s take away his short outlets because we’re beating them silly up front. By the time an intermediate route comes open, he’s done.” Yes, they might say that. A running game helps there, too, but not if you can’t block anybody. Thus, you had a game where Ben played miraculously just to stay alive.

Go back and watch that game, if you taped it. He was phenomenal. He was a one-man offense. I don’t know if any QB in league wins that game that night with that O line in front of him.

Or maybe Haley can just recreate New England and Tennessee 16 times next season. Can’t be that hard!! Please excuse the rant. 
 
Why do you think there was so much media confusion on the Tomlin-Arians-Rooney-Haley issues? So many seemed to report on the events with different interpretations of the “who’s and why’s”…

When an organization blatantly lies and refuses to clear up the confusion, it opens itself up to speculation and interpretations. The Steelers invited the speculation through their actions. They fired Bruce Arians and tried to cover it up as a “retirement.” He was working for the Colts eight days later.

The part of the story that people got right was this: Bruce Arians didn’t retire. That was known and reported immediately. He was fired. Maybe some of the speculation got out of control, but again, columnists especially are free to speculate all they like.
 
Is Coach Tomlin too “hands off” when it comes to team direction/strategy – and is this a pivotal season for him considering his contract status and the large number of changes to personnel and coaches – to see how he handles these changes?

The bosses I respect most are the ones who are secure enough in themselves to let the people under them do their jobs without constant tinkering and interference. That is Mike Tomlin. And that is not to say he’s totally hands-off when it comes to strategy. Obviously, he’s helping form game plans and such. But he gives his coordinators and coaches autonomy — and he has done a good job of making changes.

I thought, for example, he made the right calls in switching O line coach and especially special teams coaches a few years ago. If you’re confident in your ability to find the right people, find them and let them do their jobs. As for this being a pivotal season, no, I don’t see it that way for Tomlin. I expect him to be signed to a longer-term deal by the season opener. I believe the Steelers are confident they found their man when they hired Tomlin. His record proves it. One season, no matter how it goes, won’t change it.
 
What young players do you see stepping up in 2012 – especially in the secondary?

I liked what I saw from Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis. Those are the guys, especially if William Gay leaves. Up front, it’s hard to tell sometimes how linemen are progressing in this defensive system. Everybody wants to see big plays, but the linebackers are paid for those. The linemen are paid to tie up blockers and fulfill inglorious responsibilities so that the linebackers can make plays.

On offense, I like the idea of Weslye Saunders becoming a bigger part of the offense. His teammates see the talent. I expect we all might see it next season — and here’s hoping his suspension is lifted, given that it appears it was medication for ADD.

 In all of the offensive discussions, what has been lost recently are the struggles of the defense. They were good statistically, but seemed to break down in key moments. Any thoughts on how LeBeau is addressing this issue and what the solution(s) may be?
 
Good health, for starters, but you are right: The defense has been given a free pass amid all this drama regarding the offense (building up to a second rant here) …. Yes, the rankings were great. Didn’t give up a lot of points. But when big games were on the line, they failed. 92 yards against Baltimore, without a hint of resistance …. A 6-week drive against Houston. …. Tebow. …. This defense rarely gave the offense a short field, couldn’t get to the quarterback consistently, set a franchise low for fumble recoveries. In short, it didn’t make the “splash plays” that have defined the unit in the past.

And a Steelers defense that just bends and doesn’t break and doesn’t turn games around with big plays isn’t really a Steelers defense, after all. That said, a healthy Woodley and Harrison make a Worilds of difference (thank you, I’ll be here all week).
 
Are people forgetting the job McLendon has done at NT in Hampton’s stead? Can he be the next starting NT? And conversely – has Hood disappointed?

I refer to above paragraph about the role of D linemen in this defense. The NFL, too, has reached the point where nose tackles aren’t on the field very much, but if you ask McLendon’s teammates and coaches, they’ll tell you he did an adequate job. If Hampton takes a pay cut, I keep him, because I love his leadership and I think he can still play a bit.

Hood is an interesting question. Again, I think people who want to see Bruce Smith are going to be disappointed. Hood isn’t going to be all over the field making plays. That’s Harrison and Woodley’s job and why they got, what, $150 million to make them? If the Steelers are stopping the run, you can be sure that Hood is doing his job.
 
How do you see the possible loss of Hines Ward (and others like Aaron Smith and Hampton) affecting this team? What are your personal thoughts on Ward how the team would handle the loss in terms of locker room leadership?
 
I look at Hines as a leader in the way he approaches the game. Incredible player, one of the best and toughest I’ve ever seen. But I do think it’s time to move on. I’m just not sure he can be helpful on the field anymore. I mean, they literally had to invent plays behind the line of scrimmage to get him to 1,000 catches. I think his influence is imbedded in these young receivers, though. Hopefully, they learned their lessons well. And that said, I still believe there is a chance he will be back.

As for Smith or other veteran leaders, it’s a great question: How does the loss of such incredible leadership affect a team? I wish I had the answer. Fact is, nobody does. Younger players who haven’t necessarily been leaders will have to take the baton. Woodley’s a good example. Tomlin has refused to label him a leader in the past. I didn’t sense any disrespect there but rather just Tomlin making sure a guy waited his turn. Now, it might just be time for Woodley and others to help take the leadership mantle.
 
It’s early – but where is this draft looking strongest and is it a good draft for addressing the team’s needs?

Yes, it’s early. There are people who get paid to analyze football players running around in shorts. I’ll let them analyze the strength of the draft. I know this: The Steelers, as always, are in position take the best player on their board (other than a QB, of course). … And they have been very good in first rounds under Kevin Colbert. 
 
Any last thoughts for readers?

Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb (ATTENTION READERS:  readers who can attribute that quote will be treated to a free cup of coffee by Joe himself – but NO CHEATING – you cannot use Google!).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012 12:39 am

    “Everybody is fixated on shorter passes and getting rid of the ball quicker. Did they ever think that defensive coordinators might be thinking about that, too, and might want to take away those options? ‘Just do what you did against the Titans and New England!’ Oh, OK, we’ll just recreate those games. Never mind that Tennessee had maybe the worst pass rush in pro football and that New England’s wasn’t appreciably better. Ben picked those teams apart with short passes, proving that when that option is available, he is more than willing and able to play that kind of game.”

    Best line in the entire article. This means that all the “Roethlisberger is not a pocket passer/can’t read defenses/can’t make quick decisions/can’t run a precision passing offense” people can rightfully shove it. Tom Brady and Drew Brees have a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber Gs in front of them. (Not just one, but a pair.) No wonder they’re so good at stepping up in the pocket to deliver. Roethlisberger has had zero starting-caliber Gs, let alone Pro Bowl-caliber, in front of him since Alan Faneca left. You can’t step up in the pocket if it’s not there, not big enough, or moving backwards. The C alone can’t form a pocket for his QB.

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