Are the Stillers Destined for Mediocrity this Season?
Stillers Season Pre-Look
September 5, 2013
I haven’t seen such a lack of excitement about the Stillers in years. Phrases such as “6-10” are being thrown about, and I’m not talking about some new competitor to the 7-11 store franchise.
Add in a winless pre-season, and you’ve got the makings for a ton of pessimism on the part of Stillers fans. The defense looks old, the line can’t block and the special teams look soft.
So are the Stillers in fact destined for a dud of a 2013 campaign? I’m not so sure of that.
First, keep in mind that the Stillers don’t play in a vacuum. Their six most important games will be facing the rest of their division, which this year is totally up for grabs. Let’s start with a quick look around the North:
Baltimore: How will they do in the new big-money Flacco era, where Jump-Ball Joe will no longer get away with being just another player on offense? Perhaps we got a clue last night in Denver, when Flacco had to put it up more than his usual 14 attempts, and the Ravens got roasted. (But hey, it’s all Cam’s fault, right?) Ravens fans instantly declared Ed Reed old and busted the minute he left, but I bet Ed fell off his chair laughing as he watched the “new and improved” Ravens defense get torched. The Stillers have issues – the Ravens may have more.
Cincinnati: The Bungals are the trendy pick to win the division; why, I have no idea. Cincy backed into the playoffs last season thanks only to late-season Stillers ineptitude, not because of anything they achieved themselves. I liked Andy Dalton coming out of college, but he still has yet to prove he can make the jump to elite level. And who’s going to run the ball? If it’s the same soft rookie I watched on Hard Knocks, well good luck. In typical Bungals fashion, Cincy took James Harrison and moved him inside, where he has no chance of being the savage QB hunter he once was. I no longer fear Harrison as an opponent – just like the team he now plays for.
Cleveland: The Clownies are an interesting team, a QB away from being a contender. Their defense keeps them in most games, their offense takes them back out. Trent Richardson looks like the real deal, but until the senior citizen under center shows he’s got what it takes to be more than the next Derek Anderson, Cleveland will still be the division doormat.
So you see, it isn’t just a question of whether the Stillers will be average, it’s about whether their division rivals are any better off. Going into the season, I don’t see anything to indicate superiority from the competition. So let’s start with point-for-optimism number-one: a completely winnable division.
Let me give you another reason this season might surprise you: Ben Roethlisberger will now be allowed to audible. Strange as it sounds, apparently Benji wasn’t allowed to check off last season; so if you’re one of those Haley haters, good news! Your QB may just erase a lot of Todd’s calls. Keep an eye out: this may be the biggest development for the 2013 season.
Are you one of those fans that likes to scream “go! go! go!” watching the back sprint downfield? This may be your year, thanks to new speed at running back. Last year, the Stillers banged and plodded with Redman and Dwyer. This year they’ve added some burst with Stephens-Howling (which I’ve covered in another article) and Felix Jones. (Jones, by the way, fits right in with the new zone-blocking scheme.) The Stillers can still bang with Redman, but finally there’s potential for some long-gainers, too.
The Stillers said goodbye to everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Jonathan Dwyer, whom I thought received way too much criticism. True, Dwyer fumbled a couple times, but overall had a decent camp. Dwyer simply got caught up in the numbers game, and considering Jones is a former first-round pick, that’s easy enough to do.
Now, a lot of fans are looking at the pre-season and panicking – while I’m laughing. Most are obsessed with the 0-4 showing; what I saw was Ben Roethlisberger absolutely wreck the Chiefs’ defense, stocked with all those high draft choices. The one game that disturbed me was vs. Washington, where the offense looked all disjointed. But again, taking pre-season football seriously is like falling for shows like Kitchen Nightmares – it’s all staged and not for real, people.
If there is reason for concern, well that would be the Stillers offensive line. Mike Adams in particular looks scary, whiffing like a bullfighter against pass rushers. But what else is new? A shaky-looking Stillers offense line certainly isn’t. The Stillers have sunk a lot of money into the o-line, and it’s time those guys started playing like it. If they can play at even a decent level, the Stillers will have a shot to win just about any game they play in this season.
My key player for the offense this season: impressive rookie WR Markus Wheaton. The hope is that Wheat can do what Mike Wallace did his first season: be that third or fourth receiver that no scrub DB can handle. Wallace changed the entire passing game his rookie year, and Wheaton has the same potential.
Here’s one reason for optimism for the defense: new freedom for the defensive line. The Stillers have decided to free the DLs from their single-gap responsibilities, which could add up to more rush. Considering the capital the Stillers have sunk into Hood and Heyward, it’s about time. (Just like it’s time for those two to start producing.) No one can expect the Stillers defense to perform at 2005 levels, but by continuing its trend of not giving up a lot of points, that may be enough. Likewise, a push by the LBs would be nice – imagine if Woodley can return to his first-year form rather than his post-contract slob self. Now imagine that supposed impact rookie Jarvis Jones can contribute; the 3-4 D will begin to run again as it’s intended.
Speaking of rookies, as I mentioned this spring, drafting WR Justin Brown would be a complete waste. Sure enough, Brown got cut (later added back to the scrub squad) while out in Chicago, rookie DL-LB Cornelius Washington pushes for a starting job. Nice job there, front office. Go treat yourself to another big expense-account dinner – you’ve earned it!
Here’s why I’ll be rooting for the Stillers punter this year:
Anyway, to me, the 2013 season boils down to two simple things: enough pass protection not to get the QB killed, and a little more heat on the passer, thereby not giving up all those third-down conversions and keeping the opponents scoring down. Last season opposing QBs had time to enjoy a Coke and a Five-Dollar Foot Long back there – cut down on the comfort, and you’d be surprised how the turnovers start returning.
If the Stillers can dirty the other QB while keeping their own guy’s jersey a little cleaner, there’s no reason they should finish at .500 or worse. Looking at the schedule, I see 4 games I’d probably chalk up as losses. Beyond that, every game is up for grabs. The Stillers just need to stop acting like Mike Wallace, and dropping the ball.
Here’s to something better than what the Stillers gave us in 2012…