Stillers 2001 Midterm Grades
The Stillers have just completed the midway point of their '01 schedule, and you know what that means�..the dreaded mid-term grades. I won't grade each and every player as I do for the final grades, but I'll grade primarily by position, as I do in my postgame reports�
QB: After a dismal outing in the opener and an equally poor one in Buffalo after the long 9-11 & then bye-week layoff, Stewart has strung together a nice succession of good games. He's hardly been a surgeon with a scalpel, but his accuracy has improved dramatically over the scattershot throws he continually misfired in '98-'00. Just as impressive has been his on-field poise, leadership, and willingness to take a hit in the pocket. His running, aside from the hideous boner hear the goal line in the Clev. game, has also been courageous and effective. Some warts still exist -- most notably the telegraphing, poor arc & touch on the lob and deep ball, and a sometimes refusal to throw on-the-run -- but Stewart is playing well enough at QB to guide this team to the playoffs. A-.
RB: After 3 years of being contained and bottled in too many games, Bettis has found new life and is playing his best football since the '97 season. After rotting on Bill Cowher's bench the past 2 seasons, Amos Zereoue has finally been given the chance to contribute, and he's been a major contributor to this offense. Amoz gives this offense what is desperately needs -- speed, quickness, and contributions from the backfield in the passing offense. Chris Fu has played sparingly, but has chipped in a little, and has also chipped in at FB. A.
FB: Due to Dan Kreider's preseason injuries, Jon Witman managed to finagle the starting job, and has held onto it despite mediocre play that has deteriorated in recent weeks. Dan Kreider finally got some meaningful PT in the Clev. game and came through with several bone-jarring blocks. With Witman's back again hurt and Kreider fully healthy, this position must be manned by the best man (read: Kreider) if the Stillers hope to excel in the playoffs. Witman, C. Kreider, Inc.
WR: This has probably been the most disappointing unit of the non-special teams positions. Last year's #1 draftee, Plex Burress, has shown some small signs of breaking out, including a nice end zone catch for his first NFL. But Burress has also been inconsistent and sloppy. The team's leading receiver is Hines Ward, who has been amongst the best in the NFL this season�at blocking. Ward has grabbed 50 passes, but for a puny 9.7 YPC. No less than 41 players in the conference have YPC higher than Hines', and these 41 aren't all catching passes from Manning and Gannon. Some, in fact, are catching balls from such heralded QBs as Elvis Grbac, Trent Green, Rob Johnson, Matt Hasselback, and Jon Kitna. While it's nice to see the gaudy stat of 50 grabs, the reality is that most of Ward's catches are from 0-step hitches, WR screens, and curls at or under 6 yards. He's also got a miniscule 2 TDs. It's easy to pooh-pooh a difference of 3 or 4 yards per catch, but that's a tremendous difference when you're talking about either moving the chains or bringing out the punt team. Ward, a fan favorite, has also been exonerated in the outrage against dropped balls, despite dropping as many balls as any other receiver on this team thus far. (To be sure, he's had more chances.) This is certainly not a "rip" on Ward, who has been gutty and tough all year, but simply the frank assessment that these midterm grades are supposed to be doing. Bobby Shaw has fought at times with the drops, although he has also been a Stewart favorite on 3rd downs. Troy Edwards has been relegated to the #4 receiver and is becoming more of a forgotten man. This group is absolutely going to have to step it up if the Stillers are going to win the division crown. C-.
TE: Mark Breuner has given exactly what you'd expect from him: good blocking, a number of dropped passes, and little production in the passing game. Jeremy Tuman, the team's "pass catching TE" the past 2 seasons, finally snared his first NFL reception, and also caught a TD on a HB-Option pass. Tuman's blocking, however, has been worse than Witman's. B.
OL: This unit has gelled and has been the team's most pleasant surprise in '01. While Tylski remains the weakest link, his play has mostly been acceptable. Aside from some troubles on opening day, this unit, as a unit, has dominated every opponent since. And remarkably, they've not been flagged for a holding call this entire season. A+.
DL: Perhaps this crew has been the 2nd biggest surprise of '01. Aaron Smith has progressed well past the point of being a platoon starter and has established himself as a high quality DE. Kimo has been nagged by injury but has mostly held up his end. Rookie Rodney Bailey has impressed since camp and has chipped in as a key backup. Rookie first rounder Casey Hampton, despite a large girth that appears to be growing a lil' each week, has been solid in clogging the middle, along with 2nd-year man Kendrick Clancy. This crew has gone from a weakness in '00 to a strength in '01. A.
LB: With the emergence of Kendrell Bell, this unit has been downright dominant in '01. This crew has 3 starters -- Porter, Bell, and Holmes -- who are playing with fire, gusto, intensity, and malice. The weakest link remains LOLB Jason Gildon, who, despite some paper stats and a couple earned sacks, has spent most of '01 in obscurity and hiding. Porter, Bell, Holmes: A. Gildon: C.
DB: The secondary has been sound and solid all year long. Chad and DeWayne have really clamped down on opposing receivers. Flowers and Brent have been steady and have hit hard. Two characteristics make this secondary arguably the best in the NFL: 1.) tackling and run support, which has been outstanding and, man for man, unparalleled around the rest of NFL. 2.) Depth and versatility -- Townsend and Logan give the Stillers 6 starting-caliber DBs, something few NFL teams can even dream of rolling out on a given Sunday. A.
Spec teams: Without question, the biggest disappointment on the entire squad. On opening day, a punt was blocked (although it technically didn't go into the stat books as such), and things have gone downhill from there. Blocked punts. Blocked FGs. Poor blocking in the return game. Lots of lateral dancing. Spotty coverage. Short KOs. KOs landing OOB. Missed game-winning/game-tying FGs. Jay Hayes is supposed to be the coach of this motley crew, but he's probably wearing a disguise lately, lest someone recognize him and rudely run him out of town. F.
OC: Mike Mularkey has rekindled what had been the most stale, stagnant offense in the NFL. With the help of QB coach Tom Clements, he's also rekindled Kordell Stewart, getting Stew on the move and simplifying the offense. In fact, perhaps Mularkey's best attribute has been fitting the offense around the talents of his players, rather the square-peg-into-round-hole mentality of his predecessor, Kevin Gaypride. Mularkey has struggled, of course, with his red zone offense, which ranks next to last in the NFL. While it's nice to move the ball between the 20's, this franchise has seen what happens in the playoffs (read: 1994 AFC Title game vs. S. Diego) when an offense is content to kick field goals and punts. The ground game has been dominant, but Mularkey has go to get the air game up to snuff if this team has post-season aspirations. B.
DC: Tim Lewis has come a good distance since the opening game stinkout down in Jacksonville, when Lewis was auditioning the cover of his gameplan for the replacement to the babyface on the wrapper of Charmin. In fact, in a season where his defense sits atop the NFL, the two worst outings for his defense in terms of effectiveness and dictating the pace and flow and rhythm of the game -- Jax and Clev -- were also the two games where Lewis was at his softest. If Lewis can realize that this defense, when permitted to play with audacity, tenacity, and organized reckless abandon -- can dominate much more so than when it plays softly and passively, then this defense should lead the way in the 2nd half of the season. A-.
HC: Bill Cowher has turned himself around a bit, and for the good. After standing around and watching one abortion after another from his offense the past 3 seasons, Cowher has helped remove the shackles from his athletic QB, while also seeing to it that the offense work around its talent, not the other way around. Cowher has also shown some willingness to take a risk, such as a fake FG or a trick play, etc. Of course, before the ridiculous fawning over Cowher -- notably in the Pgh. media -- reaches a feverish pitch and the shock absorbers break from the full load aboard the Cowher bandwagon, let's not forget a few small things. For one, Field Goal Bill and his brand of Billy Ball have already frittered away one game (Balt.) and nearly another (Clev.) The red zone stat, this deep into the season, is not an aberration, but a surefire indicator of the Marty Shittenheimer, play-not-to-lose mentality that pervades almost every decision that Marty Jr. makes. Furthermore, Cowher, the supposed special teams genius, is overseeing the worst special teams in the conference, if not the entire league. Both the '93 and '94 teams lost in the playoffs -- one due to poor spec teams (vs. KC) and the other due to Billy Ball. And the lack of attention to detail -- from the dozens of dropped balls, to a QB nonchalantly carrying the ball in the wrong hand en route to a sure TD, to a plethora of wasted timeouts, all point to a need for a sharper focus in practice, preparation, and execution. Much work, in conjunction for what should be a sure-fire playoff spot, needs to be done by Marty Jr. to get this engine tuned up well enough to make a serious run in postseason. B.
Synopsis: 6-2 at the midway point��who'd have thunk it? And of the 8 remaining games, 5 are at home. Of course, there's got to be some degree of under-jubilation. The team has yet to be hit by a serious injury, and it's almost implausible that, in this rigorous sport, a team can go a full 16 games without suffering a major injury to a key starter. The team has also had the luxury of playing some of the worst offenses in all of the NFL. Only Jax has posed any kind of professional-looking offense thus far, and we failed in that test. We can obviously play defense against anyone, but better offenses will present a sterner test. The key for the stretch run is to work on those "slow leaks" that, while not noticeable at a particular moment in time, can cumulatively and collectively add up to a major negative factor in a tight playoff game. The passing game, the special teams, and the actual scoring of points must all be improved upon and fine-tuned before the playoffs begin.