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Just one year removed from a Super Bowl Championship, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished at .500 with an 8-8 mark and missed the playoffs. The team seemed to regroup at mid season and was able to win 6 of its last 8 games with both losses coming rather convincingly to the Ravens. Head Coach Bill Cowher resigned after having held his position with the Steelers for 15 years. Cowher will be replaced by Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin who is promising a return to what the Steelers have been known for.
"We intend to make no bold predictions about what we are going to do. What we are going to do is promise to have a first-class blue collar work ethic in how we approach our business." The Vikings were ranked #1 in rushing defense and #8 overall in 2006 under the direction of the 34-year old Tomlin. "A fundamentalist football team that wins by attrition, that is mentally and physically tough," said Tomlin of his style. "Of course, it is no secret in the National Football League that in order to win you have to stop the run and you have to run the ball effectively.â€
The Steelers ran the ball fairly well in 2006 as RB Willie Parker earned a Pro Bowl spot rushing for 1,494 yards on 337 attempts for an average of 4.4 yards per carry. However, the power running attack that the Steelers have become known for was missing from the 2006 offense. Factor in a -8 takeaway / giveaway margin (27th in the NFL), including many resulting from interceptions of QB Ben Roethlisberger and itâ€™s not hard to see why the team failed to make it back to the playoffs in 2006.
The offensive statistics in 2006 for Pittsburgh were good, but they also mask some underlying deficiencies that must be corrected in 2007 if the Steelers are to return to the playoffs. The team finished #7 in total offense racking up 357.8 yards per game. The passing offense ranked #9 and the rushing offense ranked #10 in the league. Those numbers do not reflect the weakening of the offensive line and the large number of turnovers committed. The Steelers finished the year with a minus 8 takeaway / giveaway margin which was 27thin the NFL. QB Ben Roethlisberger was sacked an astounding 46 times in 2006 and he threw 23 interceptions when he wasnâ€™t picking himself up off of the ground. Unquestionably, Tomlin has to devote some resources in the off season to figure out how to better protect #7. RB Willie Parker put up very good numbers. Many, ITH included observed that while these numbers are good the team is still missing the power running attack that dominated defenses when Jerome Bettis was in his prime. The team needs to pick up a bigger RB in free agency or the draft to complement Parker. WR Hines Ward had a terrific year catching the ball with 74 receptions for 975 yards and 6 TD, but WR Santonio Holmes (49 catches, 825 yards) must step up after an above average rookie year to make the passing game more effective. TE Heath Miller only had 34 receptions and was not the weapon that most figured he would be in 2006.
Defensively, the numbers were also good, but the unit seemed to lack the intense pass rush at times and the secondary was left vulnerable as a result of injuries and mediocre play. Pittsburgh finished 2006 ranked 9th in the league in total defense allowing 300.3 yards per game. Other defensive rankings include 20th in pass defense, 3rd in rushing defense, and 11th in scoring defense. The unit was only able to register 39 sacks in 2006 including co-leaders at 6.5 apiece for LB Joey Porter and LB Clark Haggans. They were also able to get 19 INT and 9 forced fumbles, but the dominating defense demonstrated in the 2005 playoff run was missing in 2006. This group would benefit by improving its pass rush from the DE position and needs to develop better coverages in the secondary.
The kicking game is average with veteran P Chris Gardocki and K Jeff Reed. Look for the team to replace Gardocki. The return units clearly missed the presence of Antoine Randle-El and the team needs to find someone to take over for Holmes as the primary returner. Najeh Davenport provided little as a kick returner in 2006.
Rebuilding is probably not the right word to describe what the 2007 season holds for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but at least a minor remodeling is in order. Even though the team has ample talent to compete in the AFC North race, it takes a new coaching staff time to develop and ITH thinks the Steelers of 2006 are a notch below the Ravens and Bengals. The team needs some help / tweaking on the offensive and defensive lines and a power running back wouldnâ€™t hurt matters. It will be interesting to watch the moves made by Pittsburgh in free agency and the draft and what Tomlin does to change the face of this franchise.