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Old 12-13-2009, 12:04 AM   #1
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Default On the Steelers: The End came on a snowy night in Cleveland

On the Steelers: The End came on a snowy night in Cleveland
Sunday, December 13, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, consoled by wide receivers coach Randy Fichtner, absorbs the reality of the Steelers' 13-6 loss in Cleveland Thursday.

The end has arrived, and not just for the 2009 Steelers. It is the end of an era, one that began with the 2004 season and included two Super Bowl victories and three trips to AFC championship games.

How does a team win a Super Bowl in February and then, on the way to a 6-2 record, beat San Diego, Minnesota and Denver only to wind up losing five in a row to teams that include three of the worst in the NFL?

Their five-game losing streak is the first by a Super Bowl champion since the 1987 New York Giants, who did it with an asterisk because part came during that season's replacement games.

There are five-game losing streaks and there is the one the Steelers are on. Losing to Baltimore and Cincinnati in close games -- one with a green quarterback -- can be explained. Losing to the likes of Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland cannot, except for one theory.

This team for this era has hit the wall.
The Steelers squeezed as much as they could out of their talent during this era with their two Super Bowl victories under two different head coaches. The astonishing part of it is few saw this collapse coming as the T-shirts cranked out "Seventh Heaven" predictions for their next Lombardi Trophy soon after the parade for No. 6 ended.

While there is rampant disgust with what has happened over the past five games, this era, this decade that is coming to a fast close, should be celebrated. It will be regarded as the second-best decade in Steelers history.

Now comes the tough part -- what to do about the early part of the next decade. They can hardly blow things up, and that is not the Steelers' style, anyway. They cannot and should not purge the roster or the coaching staff, but changes need to be made and more drastic ones than those made to the lineup by coach Mike Tomlin in Cleveland Thursday night.

Here are the ages next year of some starting defenders: Casey Hampton, 33; Brett Keisel, 32; Aaron Smith, 34; James Farrior, 35; James Harrison, 32; Ike Taylor, 30; Ryan Clark, 31. And the ages of their top replacements: Tyrone Carter, 34; Deshea Townsend, 35; Travis Kirschke, 36; Chris Hoke, 34; Nick Eason, 30.

Even if all were playing at their top level, those ages would be cause for concern. The problem is the decline in play on defense combined with their getting old. Another year would not make the same group a better defense than it has been this season. The other problem is there are few replacements on the roster.

They have no young, upcoming linebackers behind the starters and only Ziggy Hood in the defensive line. They drafted two cornerbacks in the third and fifth rounds this season and have been reluctant to use or even dress one of them in the face of poor play at cornerback much of the season. Ryan Mundy is their only young safety who could possibly compete to start.

Age is not a factor on offense, but they have tough decisions there as well. They have good talent at skilled positions, including Rashard Mendenhall, Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger. What they do not have is a good, solid offensive line and it has become an offense that no longer can run when it has to run. They sunk big money into their offensive line over the past year to sign Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu and Justin Hartwig. They even signed Trai Essex when he still was a backup. They have to decide now whether they want to give big money to their fifth starter, Willie Colon, and whether these starters can carry them into the next decade.

Also, they have no complementary running back to go with Mendenhall. Willie Parker's contract expires at the end of the year, he will turn 30 next year and there seems no initiative to want to keep him.

Not only must they find a running back to go with Mendenhall, they must decide what they want from their running game. Thursday's game in Cleveland cried out for the run. It was bitterly cold and windy; 15 degrees, with minus-6 wind chill at kickoff.

The Steelers started off well on their first series when Mendenhall ran twice for 9 yards. With third-and-1 at the 24, Roethlisberger set up in the shotgun and was sacked for a 9-yard loss. It set a tone that did not end; the Steelers made what was a pitiful Browns defense without Shaun Rogers and four other starters -- and the loss of another during the game -- look like the Steel Curtain of the 1970s all night long.

While Roethlisberger tried 40 passes -- 32 attempts and eight sacks -- they ran just 22 times, including three by the quarterback, two on scrambles. Add those scrambles and you have 42 attempts to pass, just 20 runs. The Browns ran 37 times, passed 19 and had one sack. They ran for 171 yards without Jamal Lewis, making Joshua Cribbs look like Jim Brown in the process.

The Steelers were successful throwing the ball this season, as their statistics show. But without a good, complementary running game combined with a quarterback who has become too easy to sack (38 times in 12 games), the offense was not productive where it counts -- scoring points.

Add in the special teams gaffes that continued Thursday night, the lack of a return game, the lack of big plays on defense and you have 6-7. The close losses this season -- their seven came by a total of 28 points -- should not cloud their thinking as they map a plan for next season.

The slogan made popular after the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl in January 1980 became "One for the Thumb.'' It took them 26 years to get that fifth ring. The goal for them now is to not take so long to reach "Seventh Heaven" as their second-best decade of football ends with a thud.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09347...#ixzz0ZXuB14BE
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Old 12-13-2009, 12:08 AM   #2
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