Madden Column: Face it, Steelers mediocre
By: Mark Madden
Steelers fans are to be commended for not accepting mediocrity.
But they look kind of silly when they can't spot it.
This year's model looks like an 8-8 team, and is closer to 6-10 than 10-6. Only a miraculous year by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could propel the Steelers into the playoffs.
Don't rule that out. If Roethlisberger plumbs the versatility and unpredictability of his new offense while avoiding capital punishment at the hands of his line, great things are possible. If the Steelers fail, Roethlisberger will wake up with a headache most Mondays while absorbing an unfair share of the blame, but every quarterback signs that Faustian contract.
Beyond Roethlisberger, the Steelers are average. That's a blasphemous thought in these parts. But in the land of the wild-eyed yinzer, the objective thinker rules.
Consider this: How many Steelers starters are good enough to start for a legitimate postseason contender? How many Steelers defenders could start for, say, Baltimore?
The Ravens would laugh at Clark Haggans and James Harrison.
The Ravens would laugh at the Steelers cornerbacks.
James Farrior, Larry Foote, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith provide the only true quality on the Steelers defense. Brett Keisel may join that pack; he has the football sense and athletic ability to handle his expanded role.
How many starters on the Steelers offense could start for Cincinnati? Hines Ward could be the third receiver. Maybe.
Roethlisberger, Alan Faneca, Willie Parker and Marvel Smith are legit big-timers. Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller might be. Ward is a lot closer to the end of his prime than the beginning.
It's a bit skewed to compare the Steelers to the best their division rivals have to offer while ignoring the worst of the Ravens and Bengals. Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair could easily jump back on the scrap heap, while Cincinnati's rotten defense doesn't have even a single playmaker.
But it's difficult to imagine the Steelers outscoring Cincinnati, and equally difficult to imagine the Steelers scoring enough against Baltimore. The Steelers figure to again be brutalized two straight by the Ravens. Going 1-1 against Cincinnati seems possible only because the Bengals loathe prosperity.
If the Steelers really see themselves as a Super Bowl contender not far removed from winning XL, hiring a rookie head coach from outside the organization was bad. Continuity from within would have been better.
The Steelers' saving grace may be their undemanding early schedule.
At Cleveland this coming Sunday, then Buffalo and San Francisco at home, at Arizona, then home against Seattle. If the Steelers get through that stretch 4-1 (or, speaking idealistically, 5-0), momentum has been built and wiggle room created.
The schedule gets a lot harder. But if the Steelers begin 5-0, 10-6 and a playoff berth seems realistic. If the Steelers begin 3-2, that might seem OK but will actually be a deep hole.
The Steelers will come up short at center, where behemoth foes will bully Sean Mahan physically. Tackle Willie Colon is unproven. Holmes and Miller must fulfill their promise. More important, each must be given ample chance to fulfill his promise.
On defense, the outside linebackers are below average. The best cornerback won't be starting.
It all adds up to mediocre. It all adds up to 8-8. Recognize, will you?
Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 3-7 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1250.