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mesaSteeler
05-07-2010, 04:34 PM
Tip Sheet: Steelers' healthy returns
With Polamalu and Smith rounding into form, Pittsburgh hopes to reclaim swagger on D
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com
http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/columns/story?columnist=pasquarelli_len&id=5170387

No matter how many games in which troubled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger participates in 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers know they have to play better, more resourceful defense than they did a year ago.

And they know that to do so, they will require the returns to health of strong safety Troy Polamalu and end Aaron Smith.

The two stalwarts appeared in only 10 games combined in 2009, Polamalu falling victim to a sprained left knee (which did not require surgery but was twice injured) and Smith to a torn right rotator cuff. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh dropped to 9-7 and failed even to qualify for the playoffs after having won Super Bowl XLIII the previous season.

The good news? "Given all the stuff that happened," Polamalu said at last weekend's minicamp, "we still finished only one game out [of the playoffs]. So there's no big need to tear everything down and start all over. I mean, the nucleus is still here."

The better news? Polamalu and Smith appear to be healthy. Smith, one of the NFL's best and most underrated 3-4 ends, said: "I feel really good, and I've pretty much been cleared to do everything. I want to make up for lost time. I'm not a very good sit-and-watch guy."

Smith and Polamalu are hardly the only veterans in the league being counted on to do more than man the remote control this season. As is the case in every campaign, there is a considerable group of veterans on whom teams are relying to return fully healed and play key roles in 2010.

For the purposes of this column, the comeback players are limited to those who missed at least eight games last season.

So while the recovery of New England slot receiver Wes Welker from a severe knee injury is critical to the Patriots, he is not listed here. Ditto for Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, Minnesota middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, Green Bay cornerback Al Harris and Detroit tailback Kevin Smith, among others. The returns of those players, and more, are essential to their respective franchises; they just didn't meet the eight-game standard for consideration.

And although two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown of New Orleans qualified by not playing a single snap in '09, the Saints still won the Super Bowl with his replacement, Jermon Bushrod, performing pretty well.

Even without the above-named veterans, the assemblage of players whose returns are critical is lengthy and impressive.

Of course, that is typically the case, especially for those franchises that didn't make the playoffs. Few clubs, though, suffered the kind of double whammy that the Steelers experienced on defense. Make no mistake: The absence of Polamalu and Smith from the lineup made a significant difference for crafty coordinator Dick LeBeau and the way he developed game plans and orchestrated his defensive calls.

"The guys who filled in did fine," LeBeau said. "But when you're talking about [Smith and Polamalu], you're talking about some special people. They're game-changers."

Pittsburgh lost all seven games last season by seven points or fewer. Five of the defeats were by three points or fewer.

Worse, Pittsburgh either was tied or led in the fourth quarter of six of the losses.

The Steelers' statistical drop-off wasn't great -- they fell from No. 1 in the league in 2008 to fifth in overall defense in 2009 -- but the pass defense rated No. 16 and Pittsburgh was 12th in the NFL in points surrendered. And the team seemed to lack a killer instinct, the ability to close out games defensively, long the strength of Pittsburgh defenses.

Said free safety Ryan Clark: "We just couldn't make the key stop when we needed it; we couldn't get ourselves off the field."

The hope is that by getting Polamalu and Smith out of the trainer's room and back onto the field, that will change. Smith, 34 and a one-time Pro Bowl performer, is a terrific two-way player, stout against the run and still able to provide some upfield push on early downs. The 29-year-old Polamalu is one of the game's premier defensive playmakers, a five-time Pro Bowl performer, and the uniquely versatile player around whom LeBeau conjures up many of his exotic schemes.

At last week's minicamp, Polamalu, who had three interceptions in 2009 despite playing in only five games, discussed the need to create chemistry on the field. A good start toward that goal: Barring setbacks, the Steelers should have two of their key elements back on defense in 2010.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

AllD
05-08-2010, 08:47 AM
Other teams in the division have gotten better too, thankfully they still have Carson Palmer and Flacco. Winning will be determined on how effectively the Steelers play as a team. If they do it could be a repeat of 2005. If they do not then the other teams have a shot at the division.

mikeyg
05-08-2010, 09:19 AM
Other teams in the division have gotten better too, thankfully they still have Carson Palmer and Flacco. Winning will be determined on how effectively the Steelers play as a team. If they do it could be a repeat of 2005. If they do not then the other teams have a shot at the division.

the glass can easily be 1/2 full. I think people forget how lucky you have to be to go all the way.

luck with injuries
luck with a big play or 2 that gets you over the top
luck to win anything with BA as your coordinator
luck with some calls by the refs breaking your way

in 2008, we were a dominant D and a pedestrian offense. this team saw last year what happens when the D falls apart - and it could have been worse (The Pack should have, could have closed us out)

We saw Sweed drop a sure fire TD in game 3 that seals that win.

So - Luck + Talent = a SB. We will not be heavy favorites and dogs even in any number of games this year. We are right on that marginal line.

GBMelBlount
05-08-2010, 09:50 AM
mikeyg

the glass can easily be 1/2 full. I think people forget how

this team saw last year what happens when the D falls apart- and it could have been worse (The Pack should have, could have closed us out)


So - Luck + Talent = a SB.

....and the third and most important ingredient that was missing in 2009 imo.......

Heart.

mikeyg
05-08-2010, 10:08 AM
....and the third and most important ingredient that was missing in 2009 imo.......

Heart.

true - which points a lot to coaching (Tomlin?)

i got tired of MT saying we are going to make changes, and then do NOTHING.

The CLE game was one of the most disgraceful Steeler games I can remember in years. ARIANS and TOMLIN BOTH need to be held to higher standards.

lamberts-lost-tooth
05-08-2010, 10:16 AM
This article touches on a point that some of us were trying to make last year.

A team can win if they have young starters and little depth.
A team can win if they have older starters with good depth.

Unfortunately ...last year we had older talented starters on our defense with very little depth behind them...and that killed us.

A team with younger starters can have them play the whole game at a consistant level. Older starters need to be rotated out every once in a while. Our inability to get our defensive starters a breather in the course of the game resulted in 4-5 losses for us and was most probably the cause of the "dings" our players experienced, which made them even more inefficient.

As I see it we have three advantages this year over last year.

1) Starters returning from injury
2) Bringing back or signing players like Foote, McFadden and Allen.
3) Drafting for depth at key positions like OLB and DE

These three things make the CB...Safety...ILB...OLB....and DE better than it was last year. (and I think "hints" at what defensive postiion we will target in next years draft.)

Smith needs a breather....we can bring in second year DE Hood, who showed promise by the end of the season. Farrior needs a break...Foote comes in, eager to perform for the Steeler Nation.

I gotta say...I'm ready to see what this defense will do !!!!

GBMelBlount
05-08-2010, 10:37 AM
true - which points a lot to coaching (Tomlin?)

i got tired of MT saying we are going to make changes, and then do NOTHING.

The CLE game was one of the most disgraceful Steeler games I can remember in years. ARIANS and TOMLIN BOTH need to be held to higher standards.

Agreed Mikey.

There could be a lot of factors besides Tomlin though. If you were a "fly on the wall", in the huddle, in the locker room, etc., I would imagine we might see that there are A LOT of variables that could affect the team spirit and collective will to win. If you have a few "bad apples" in the ranks (teammates), it can also adversely affect the chemistry.

But again, with respect to coaches, the year after Cowher won his first superbowl, it seemed (at least to me) that he lost his fire...and I think the relative apathy trickled down. Just my opinion, but I think you're right, it needs to start at the top.

Whatever the reason, I just hope that all this off season adversity brings our team together and makes them more determined than ever to have each other's backs and kick some ass this year...

I guess we'll see.

markymarc
05-08-2010, 01:47 PM
Most likely we will need the defense to carry us through the first 4 games. It will be very nice to have Troy and Smith back!