Offseason issues aplenty

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The work doesn't scare Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The man loves holing up at the team's South Side headquarters, meeting the challenges head on and, as he always says, striving for that elusive perfection.

The problem is there might not be enough hours in the day to solve what ails the Steelers this offseason, which officially began at 11:38 last night when Jacksonville put the final touches on their Heinz Field lawn party.

Not that we didn't know that even before the Jaguars' 31-29 playoff win. We're talking about a team with gaping holes, the near-miraculous comeback last night aside.

A lot of our winter fun centers around draft speculation. Sorry. There shouldn't be much suspense between now and April. It's pretty obvious how the first three rounds should go for the Steelers: Offensive lineman, offensive lineman, offensive lineman.

In the end, the Steelers weren't able to run the ball or protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Not all of that can be blamed on running back Willie Parker's broken leg and offensive tackle Marvel Smith's back injury.

The line just wasn't good enough.

That wasn't the Fearsome Foursome that made Roethlisberger's life miserable last night. The Jaguars' pass rushers are largely a group of journeymen, yet they sacked Big Ben six times. That makes 18 sacks in the past four games that he played. That's no way to treat your franchise quarterback.

Sure, Roethlisberger will take a lot of criticism for throwing three first-half interceptions -- and deservedly so. He -- not Jacksonville's David Garrard -- played like a first-time playoff starter. But let's be fair here, it's hard to make the right decisions when you're constantly running for your life. It's even harder when your team can't run the ball.

The Steelers ran for just 43 yards last night, getting 25 on 16 carries from Parker's backup, Najeh Davenport. That's not tough, Steelers football. That's pretty wimpy, actually.

Now, Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca almost certainly will leave as a free agent, a brutal fact that Roethlisberger noted after the defeat. "If this was my last game with Alan Faneca, it was an honor and a privilege to be his quarterback and I love him to death."

Faneca wasn't happy being here this season after he felt the Steelers lowballed him in contract talks, but he played like a true pro from start to finish. He has every right to use the system to his benefit. Forget loyalty or giving the Steelers any kind of hometown discount to stay. The money that teams will wave in front of his face will be astronomical. Good for him. But I do have one request for Faneca:

Can he take center Sean Mahan with him?

I know we've been spoiled by the likes of Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings at center for the last four decades, but did Mahan control a nose tackle all season? That he was the Steelers' big free-agent signing last offseason doesn't say much about Tomlin's evaluation skills or those of the team's scouts.

Throw in the fact that Smith might never be the same player after back surgery and, well, maybe the selection of an offensive lineman in the draft's first round would be in order.

Not that there aren't sizable issues on the defense, of course. We're not exactly talking about the 'ol Steel Curtain.

The Steelers did a decent job against the run last night, holding backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew to a combined 77 yards, 139 fewer than they produced in the Jaguars' win here three weeks ago. But they couldn't stop Garrard from running for 32 yards on a quarterback draw that set up the winning field goal. The run defense was generally horrid for much of the second half of the season, especially after defensive end Aaron Smith went out with a torn biceps.

The Steelers sacked Garrard four times, but quarterback pressure also was a weakness down the stretch. The team had four sacks in the final five games. Linebacker Clark Haggans -- another free agent -- probably has played his final game. Rookie linebacker LaMarr Woodley was a rare late-season bright spot and had two sacks last night. But who knows about the first-round pick last April, linebacker Lawrence Timmons? Tomlin had better have been right about him or the Steelers are in even a deeper hole than anyone thinks.

Tomlin also is facing tough decisions with his coaching staff. The special teams were bad all season and contributed plenty to this latest defeat when the Jones-Drew went 96 yards with a kickoff return after the Steelers stormed to an early 7-0 lead. It might have been the single biggest play of the game. That's not good news for special-teams coaches Bob Ligashesky and Amos Jones. Yes, it takes two to orchestrate that mess. How bad would the special teams have been if Tomlin hadn't devoted so much practice time to them?

But it would be unfair to blame this loss all on Mahan, the late-collapsing defense, the lousy kick coverage and the two assistant coaches.

Tomlin didn't exactly have a strong finish.

His team got worse as the season went on. This final, painful defeat made it four out of five down the stretch. It's nice to think Tomlin already is on the South Side, getting started on his offseason work.

There really isn't a minute to waste.



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