6-Step Recovery Plan

Well, Tom Brady got it good Sunday, inspiring Jim Wexell to develop his 6-Step Plan for the Steelers' return to prominince in the most physical division in football.

I've been waiting for a day like this one ever since Tom Brady made those snarky comments about Heinz Field following the 2004 AFC Championship Game.

The Baltimore Ravens put a dagger in the heart of the former Brady-led dynasty Sunday by running wild on the New England Patriots in Foxboro.

Ray Rice got it rolling with an 83-yard touchdown run up the gut on the first play, and then Pretty Boy fumbled it back to give the Ravens a second touchdown.

Le'Ron McClain ran for that touchdown behind a formation featuring three tackles, a tight end, a fullback, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata motioning into the middle of the line. But the Ravens tricked the Pats by giving it to the fullback, McClain, who walked into the end zone. He then did a silly five-second big-man jig before trotting to the sideline with his teammates, who were given more jackets than high fives.

These Ravens were all business on this day, and for the first time in my life I admired those dirty birds.

I'm probably not the only one.

The Ravens were physical and they didn't mess around. As mentioned, their gadget play was to hand the ball to a fullback instead of Rice, and the fullback trotted in behind a couple of tons of purple haze inducing muscle. They reminded me of what the Steelers used to be, which reminded me of a quote from former Monday Night Football analyst Tony Kornheiser that I used in my last book:

"People around the country like the Pittsburgh Steelers," Kornheiser said before a 2007 Monday night thrashing of the Ravens. "They like the fact that they play tough football in a tough city. This is not a New York team, not a Los Angeles team, a Chicago team, a Boston team, no Red Sox Nation situation. This is family owned, tough and durable. They have tradition, stability and continuity. Everywhere you go you find Steeler fans. They travel well. People like them and they believe that this is the kind of city where the right kind of football's played. I think they're the one organization in the NFL that just about everybody likes, except maybe people from Cleveland."

Ah, the good old days.

The Steelers, of course, have lost that identity. It began slipping away about the same time ol' Willie Parker's wheels fell off in 2007. And that's about the same time that fullback Dan "Buckethead" Kreider went on injured reserve. Kreider was released sometime in early 2008, or about the same time Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians got out of the co-pilot's chair and strode across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and made this declaration of accomplishment:

"We have no fullback on this roster!" Arians told the cheering throng.

The throng, of course, was, is, made up mostly of Pittsburgh media, mixed with some young, hip sophisticates from around the country. They, while watching from their daddy's knee, always wondered why Bill Cowher handed off for three-yard gains when it seemed so much easier to throw for big chunks.

"Because three things can happen when you throw for chunks," your dad would always tell you, "and two of them are bad."

"Right, ol' man," you thought to yourself, "and Woody Hayes is dead."

Well, those kids have grown up and are now delirious with the stats Arians is putting up with his modern-era use of Ben Roethlisberger and his pass-game amigos. It worked in 2008 and delivered a Super Bowl, and it will work again, they tell themselves.

Will it?

By working the pass game till the carrier deck crumbled, the Steelers have lost something. They of course lost their fullback. They lost their need for explosive linemen. (Heck, even Chris Kemoeatu can't fire off the ball.) They lost their need to work the run game. And some say that's caused the defense to grow soft.

That may play well in the AFC West, where teams travel to sunny and warm climes, or in Indianapolis, where the temperature is always 72 and the noise comes with the dome, but it's a fact that the AFC North Division is the only division in the NFL without a built-in southern swing or a visit to a dome where big-chunk attacks can thrive.

No, the Steelers have to win in Cleveland, in Cincinnati, and in Baltimore to really win big, and for years they showed those teams how to go about it.

Now, those teams are showing the Steelers how to get it back. The Steelers fell so hard for the tasty fruit of Roethlisberger's playground heroics in 2008 that they've scrapped their age-old traditions and are in danger of suffering the kind of beatdowns the defensively soft yet offensively sophisticated Patriots just experienced.

The Rooneys understand this and they wanted Arians gone. But Tomlin apparently knows no other bright, young coaches in the league. He came to the Steelers as a mere kid with one year experience as a coordinator and hastily put his first staff together. He did not change that staff until this year, and then he only took down the easy ones: the special teams coach and the offensive line coach. Tomlin stood up to the Rooneys – who even let Walt Kiesling call his own shots – and kept the offensive coordinator.

Of course, we've been told that Tomlin had "a long meeting" with his offensive coordinator. Presumably we are to believe that Tomlin once again Laid Down The Law.

We've heard that before. We heard that after Arians called 42 pass plays in 42 m.p.h. wind gusts on a frigid night along the shores of Lake Erie, in a loss Tomlin later blamed on the players' lack of effort. We'd heard that Tomlin "laid down the law" with Arians after that game. Of course, little changed – little could change – in a 3-game, end-of-season flurry that did little more than keep Arians' job.

So what could change now with a long and grouchy off-season to be endured?

Well, Kevin Colbert and of course Tomlin run the personnel show, and this is what I believe they must do in order to not only prove they Laid Down The Law, but to regain their identity and regain their prominence in the most physical division in football:

1. Draft an offensive lineman in the first round. Yes, I understand that the secondary is an abomination. It's in as bad a shape as the O-line was going into the 2008 draft. But that first round in '08 left the Steelers only to reach for a would-be lineman, and that's never part of the plan of a stable organization. Instead, the Steelers grabbed value with running back Rashard Mendenhall. Well, in 2010, the first round will lack value at cornerback, and a deep safety crop can be addressed in the third and even fourth rounds. No, with the 18th pick it's time to draft that offensive lineman, a tackle who'll be the cornerstone of future physical versions, a left tackle who could man the right side if Willie Colon leaves via free agency or is moved inside to guard, a left tackle who already wears the black and gold and looks pretty damn handsome in it, a tackle out of Iowa named Bryan Bulaga.

2. Draft an offensive lineman in the second round. Of course, we hear so much about the youngsters coming up. But Ramon Foster needs to get in better shape. And Kraig Urbik needs to come off the ball with more gusto. And Doug Legursky – whom the former OL coach believes is the one to watch – isn't the beast that Maurkice Pouncey is. Do you want to count bodies and finesse a plan that will maximize your ability to draft another defensive back because he can also return some kicks? Or do you want a beast who's the second building block of a future O-line? I say draft the beastly center from Florida and count the bodies later.

3. Get a fullback. The maverick OC's use of tight ends in the backfield is no longer necessary. Thanks, but no thanks, Maverick, because you're not using this team any longer to show the rest of the league how smart you are. The RB coach wanted McClain back in 2007, but "Tombert" thought it better to draft Dan Sepulveda and Ryan McBean with the Steelers' picks in the fourth round. McClain, the guy doing the big-man jig in the Patriots' end zone, on the Patriots' field, the guy headed for the starting backfield in the Pro Bowl, that guy was drafted with the last pick of the fourth round that year. That's how easy it is to find a great fullback. Don't mess it up this year.

4. Move the tight end to tight end. Roethlisberger threw David Johnson a pass in the flat in Cleveland. He dropped it. So I presume the rookie 7th-round pick with the stone hands, who was playing out of position at fullback, did that because he didn't care? Uh, right. No, move this kid to tight end and at least give the appearance that the guy on the other side of the gritty, gutty pass-catching tight end is at least trying to move someone off the line on a run play.

5. Work the run game in training camp. I know. The media and the sophisticates believe it's myth that working the run game in training camp also toughens up the defense. But guess what? It toughens up everyone. It toughens up the coach. It toughens up the coordinators. It toughens up the B.A.-fed media. I'll bet it'll even toughen up the kicker, because I swear Jeff Reed used to do a pretty good imitation of a tough guy behind the coverage teams back in the day.

6. Leave a trail of bloody bodies into the playoffs. Or in other words, work the damn run game in the regular season. Now, I realize this team has some pretty impressive pass-game weapons, but they still have to play physical football. Heck, even Cowher would've found a way to sprinkle "chunk plays" in with his three-yards-and-cloud-of-spittle calls.

Gaining a physical presence does not mean the Steelers have to become an awful passing team. This team has the weapons to do great things, but it must regain its core identity. Or at the least get it back from the rivals who've stolen it.

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