Neal Coolong, editor at Behind the Steel Curtain, was gracious enough to spend some time chatting with us about his Pittsburgh Steelers... Not only is is a hell of a nice guy, but also very insightful regarding what's going on in the Steel city.
Big thanks to Neal for hanging out with us this week!
1- The Steelers of 2013 have started off much more slowly than anyone probably expected, and there is already a sense of panic setting in. There are still some great players on both sides of the ball, and Mike Tomlin has always seemed like a good coach. Do you think this is just a slow start for a team that is going to get back on track this season, or are things as tough as they seem to be?
Neal: I'd say it's a slow start for a team that will get back on track, and it's as tough as it seems. Plain and simple, they aren't playing good football, but what national pundits are not factoring in here is Maurkice Pouncey is not the only player the Steelers are missing. Heath Miller will return in Week 3, but he won't be the same player he was before he got hurt. The Steelers signed Matt Spaeth to help incorporate a zone running scheme they haven't used this season because of injuries to Miller (torn ACL in Week 16 of last year), Spaeth (foot injury, on short-term IR) and Le'Veon Bell (may make his debut against Chicago). When a team wanted to incorporate a specific kind of offense, losing four starters doesn't help, but what we're seeing more than anything is those four players were the key components to it.
Defensive signal-caller Larry Foote was lost in Week 1, and just like the tight end position, the loss of the starter doesn't help, but the replacements are more of the issue. I'd expect Chicago to attack Steelers' ILBs Kion Wilson and Vince Williams quite a bit in coverage.
2- What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses on offense?
Neal: Not to come off as pessimistic, but they don't have any strengths on offense right now. There really isn't anything they're doing well. Protection has been a problem, less-than-adequate talent has been forced on the field and it's breaking everything else down. The Steelers will run zone much more against Chicago than they have in the first two games, and they haven't really done that yet this year. Most likely, the decision not to run it is due to personnel, and I'm not sure the players they'll have out there will be good enough, but they need to do something.
3- What about on defense?
Neal: Things are a bit more smooth on the defensive side of the ball. Expect the Steelers to run several nickel packages with four safeties on the field - Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden. Add in cornerbacks Ike Taylor and William Gay (Cortez Allen will not play) It won't be a surprise if they have what looks like dime coverage on the field, but utilize Polamalu as a linebacker in a 4-2-5 look.
They've gotten some decent pressure from their front seven, particularly from LaMarr Woodley off the right offensive edge (five pressures in two games). Brett Keisel and Cameron Heyward have played well too, and it's kept teams from hitting on deep passes with the exception of a 61-yarder to TE Tyler Eifert last week - the result of blown coverage.
4- Who are some rookies and sophomores that are likely to make the biggest impact this season?
Neal: Rookie OLB Jarvis Jones is the easiest to point out. He's had two tackles-for-loss so far this year, and has taken the starting job away from veteran Jason Worilds. He's still got some work to do on his pass rush, but, including the preseason, he's made an impact play each game. He's an exciting player.
With the injury of CB Cortez Allen, Shamarko Thomas is playing the nickel defensive back spot as William Gay moved to the outside. He's a big hitter and plays with intensity. And, like Jones, he's already made an impact on special teams.
Steelers fans are hoping RB Le'Veon Bell can be added to this list. He may play against the Bears. He did well in training camp practices, but has been limited by injuries, and hasn't seen game action since Aug. 19.
5- It's been seven years since Bill Cowher stepped down as head coach of the Steelers... That's a lot of time away from the game. Do you think he will ever coach again, and better yet, would a team ever consider bringing in a head coach that has been out of coaching for so long?
Neal: My thought on Cowher has been if he has the right opportunity, he'd come back - but "right" is the operative word here. One issue that brought on his retirement was the lack of organizational control. It used to be all the rage for high-end coaches to get general manager responsibilities worked into his head coaching duties. That's a bit outdated now.
This looks to be yet another year where Giants coach Tom Coughlin will be fired each week by the media, and we'll soon hear Cowher-to-New York rumors, and there's some logic behind the idea that Cowher's been holding out for the Giants job. Considering Cowher's track record of success, and how relatively young he was when he stepped down in Pittsburgh, I'd be surprised if any team with an opening wouldn't talk to him, but he's going to want it on his terms - to whatever end he's able to negotiate anymore.
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