Palmer�s Pre-Season Preview
September 7, 2011
The Stillers come off a super �10 campaign � disappointing only from the last game � fighting the curse of the Super Bowl loser. That is to say, the team that loses the Super Bowl usually tanks it the next season.
There are a couple reasons this probably won�t happen, but one that will play a factor if it does. First off, on the plus side, there�s the offense, which will determine how far the Stillers go this year. The key to understanding the �11 Stillers is the huge transformation that the team has undergone: namely, the Stillers have become an offensively driven team.
Ignore all the talk on TV you�ll hear about that �great Stillers D.� The sports media love to live in the past, where the Stillers are all about defense and the run game. The Stiller D is in fact overrated � I don�t mean they suck or anything � it�s just that they are not the dominating unit they once were � and will be portrayed again to be this year. Why? Let me give you a clue:
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That�s not a defense, that�s an old folks home � in fact, the Stillers have one of the oldest (on average) defensive units since the NFL started keeping records. Its two marquee players, Polamalu and Harrison, are on the sides of their careers where the athletic skills generally begin to decline. The Stillers will try to make up for speed with experience, and we�ll have to see how this works when December rolls around. Already there are signs to watch for � the normally dominant run defense seemed to give up a fair amount of outside runs this pre-season.
If the run D at all becomes a problem, there�s a bumpy ride ahead. An older, slower defense accounts for a great deal of why the pass defense gives it up to the spread, and why it breaks down late in games. The Stillers amazing ability to stop the run makes up for a lot of other stuff � they can �t afford it to step down even a little in this department. Let�s just hope the younger guys, Hood and Timmons, are up to the challenge of making up some of the age gap.
Balancing out this potential problem is the Stillers offense, which, if the Stillers are to make another Bowl run, will have to carry the load. That�s fortunate, because the Stillers are loaded at the skill positions � this is the best WR unit Ben Roethlisberger�s ever had, the best the Stillers have fielded since Mills, Thigpen and Hastings roamed the turf. I normally don�t follow pre-season stats, but Ben�s deserve a mention: through three games he was 21 of 31 with 4 TDs, hadn�t come close to throwing a pick, for an incredible 146.6 rating. If the O-line can keep him upright, he�s headed for a monster season. (That need took on new importance with the loss of Byron Leftwich, the NFL�s best back-up.) In short, the franchise is now being run by The Franchise.
Should the unthinkable happen, the Stillers will have to rely on Charlie Batch, the offensive answer to the old-man defensive squad, or worse, Dennis Dixon. Neither one inspires much confidence, though if I had to choose I�d go with Batch, who at least gets the passing game.
But back to the WRs for a moment. As a MAC school grad, I follow that college league�s games regularly, and those of you who read me know I�ve loved Antonio Brown (whom I call �Loudmouth� for obvious reasons) from day one. From Roethlisberger to Harrison, the MAC stars keep helping the Stillers add to their list of division and league titles. Now add Central Michigan�s Brown to the list.
In his second season the Loudmouth appears ready to break out, and will join Ward, Wallace and Sanders to form a formidable WR group. (Add to that the brilliant acquisition of Jerricho Cotchery, and you have maybe the deepest unit in football.) Loudmouth is an athletic freak, a man whose conditioning capacity allows him to outwork and outhustle just about anyone � his practice habits have become legend. The Stillers now have the luxury of looking at Ward as a third option if they wish � something that may happen as the season goes on.
The running back unit too is stacked, with Mendenhall backed by the bull known as Ike Redman (look for him to get more carries this year, as his power simply can�t be ignored any longer). If that�s not enough, Jonathan Dwyer�s shown why he�s another late-round gem, having broken off several beautiful runs this pre-season. Only the O-line is suspect, mostly because we have to see how Jonathan Scott can do (I hated the release of Max Starks). This won�t be a great unit, but as long as they can keep Ben from getting killed, I�ll take what they bring.
Obviously the Stillers are set with Pouncey, the latest in a line of great centers. But can Doug Legursky take on a starting OL position? At 6-1, 315 he�s maybe the smallest guard in pro football, although I�m told he�s also one of the strongest. Chris Kemoeatu mans the other guard spot, where he excels at pulling and also committing the dumbest penalties in the game. Willie Colon, always loved by the team for some reason, attempts to replace Flo Adams, who dominated at times last year. If these guys can gel into even a decent pass-pro unit, the Stillers should have no problem scoring points � lots of them.
The Stillers showed a lot of pass looks this pre-season, both with multiple WR and TE sets. The TEs as a group should improve with the subtraction of Matt �Zero YAC� Spaeth � the underrated David Johnson looks set to claim his spot.
As for the defense, though, the outlook is a little more up in the air.
The Stillers cut interesting young prospects like Crezdon Butler, yet continue to keep Willie Gay, who must have pictures of someone from the front office engaged in foul acts with farm animals. I don�t know how else to account for him sticking to the roster. The Stillers amaze me sometimes with such moves, and I continue to wonder what kind of performance they�ll get from such a sickly secondary. The Stillers did NOT address the problems that plagued their defense last year � namely, defending against teams that spread out the field and dink pass them to death. That�s not a good sign heading into the season.
In short, look for the �11 Stillers � if they�re lucky, that is � to resemble more the �78 unit, a team that relied on its offense to make up for an aging defense living off its reputation. They certainly have the skill players to do it; now we�ll have to see if the O-line can pull its weight. There will be games where the Stillers will have to score 30 points to win � I know the QB and WRs are up to the challenge. The question is, are the guards and tackles, too? Stay tuned.
BALTIMORE VS. STILLERS, WEEK ONE: The Ravens host the Stillers, who, whether they�ll admit it or not, are deep inside their purple heads. The Ravens had, in my opinion, one of the better drafts, adding corner Jimmy Smith and WR Torrey Smith. The Smiths will give them speed at both positions they�ve been missing for a long time. The Ravens have some of the same issues as the Stillers, including the age of their defenders � Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are both eligible for the bingo squad. Look for the absence of Todd Heap to hurt the Ravens more than some realize. A key will be getting Ray Rice matched up in space against old man Farrior � if the Ravens can pull that off, they�ll have a good shot at winning. Otherwise, we�ll have another Ravens-Stillers bangfest, with the edge going to Pittsburgh because Joe Flacco will never be Ben Roethlisberger.
Elsewhere around the AFC North:
CLEVELAND: The Brownies should be the division�s most improved squad, with Colt McCoy showing signs of having what it takes to be an NFL QB. In the meantime, the team will try to smashmouth it with the superb Peyton Hillis. Until guys like Sheldon Brown and D�Qwell Jackson show they can be actual NFL defenders, however, the best Cleveland can shoot for is Mount Mediocrity -- which would be an improvement considering how embarrassing they�ve been the last decade.
CINCINNATI: Cleveland could be the surprise team, which leaves the Bungals back in the basement. No other team suffers from the sheer organizational dysfunction that Cincy does, from their despised owner to their ineffective head coach. Not everything is dark though � the team finally got rid of dead wood like Ochostinko, and don�t sleep on Andy Dalton, who has a chance to be something more than the Choker he�s replacing. (I thought Dalton might�ve been the best QB coming out of college last year.) Speaking of the great gagger, Carson P. was last seen whining that he refused to play for such a poor team � sort of like the pilot blaming the plane for the shitty ride. What, my fault we suck? Hey I�m just the quarterback! When your �leader� wants QB money and punter responsibility, you know you�re in trouble. And when aren�t the Bungals in trouble?
SUPER PREVIEW: The AFC is up in the air; choose your favorite among New England, the Jets, Stillers, Ravens and the up-and-coming KC Chiefs. (I�d throw the Indy Colts in there, except for Manning�s suddenly uncertain status.) In the NFC, I look for Philly to battle it out with Chicago � the rest of the world will hop the Green Bay wagon, but they�ll be eliminated once somebody figures out just how weak they are against the run.
Anyway, enjoy the season, Stillers� fans, and whether you�re old enough or not: remember �78!