The Steelers missed the playoffs in 2012 for just the 3rd time in the Ben Roethlisberger era. Those 3 seasons have coincided with the only 3 seasons in that type span that the defense hasn’t ranked in the top-3 in points allowed. That being said, last season was hardly the defense’s fault. While they didn’t make it a ridiculous 7th top-3 scoring defense finish in 9 years, they still finished 6th allowing 19.6 points per game. In addition to that, they allowed the fewest yards in the NFL, allowing 4413, 239 less than 2nd place Denver.
The offense was much more to blame, as they ranked 22nd in the NFL, scoring just 21.0 points per game. The issues were twofold. The first was a very lackluster running game, which averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL. The trio of Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, and Rashard Mendenhall really struggled. The second was an injury to Ben Roethlisberger, which cost him 3 and ½ games of real game action and limited him for the rest of the season upon his return. Prior to the Kansas City game where Roethlisberger got hurt, the Steelers were 5-3 and coming off a big win over the New York Giants, on a 3 game winning streak (which also included eventual playoff teams Cincinnati and Washington), and averaging 23.9 points per game.
In order to shore up their running game, they spent a 2nd round pick on Le’Veon Bell. Bell is not an overly explosive back (his longest run of the last 2 seasons was 40 yards), but he’s incredibly consistent, capable of carrying a load, and a good pass catcher and pass protector. Bell averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 382 carries last year, catching 32 passes and scoring 13 times.
As for Ben Roethlisberger, he’s only played all 16 games once in his 9 year career. However, he’s usually been able to play well through injuries. His 2012 YPA of 7.3 was well behind his career average of 7.9 and the 2nd lowest of his career. Going into that Kansas City game, he was completing 67.1% of his passes for an average of 7.4 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. He was averaging slightly fewer yards per attempt than his career average, but in new Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley’s more conservative offense he was more accurate and better at protecting the football than usual. They also usually are able to survive without Roethlisberger, going 8-5 in the games he missed from 2004-2011, but they went just 1-2 in those games in 2012, thanks to terrible running game production and a ridiculous 8 turnover (5 fumble) loss to the Browns.
Overall, I like their chances of bouncing back this season. They probably won’t win 12 games like in 2010 or 2011, but their running game should be better and they should have better luck. Injuries probably won’t affect their season as much as they did last year and even if they “only” outgain their opponents by 909 yards again this season, they’ll probably be better than 8-8. This is still a very talented team that has gone 97-47 since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
Ben Roethlisberger is one of just 7 active starting quarterbacks to have won the Super Bowl and while he’s always had a lot of help, he does belong in that top-7 or top-8 group of quarterbacks. He’s completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.9 YPA, 191 touchdowns, and 108 interceptions in his career. His biggest issue is his inability to stay healthy. He’s not a particularly brittle player, but he takes a lot of hits because of his style of play. He’s also a very tough quarterback who usually plays through injuries and plays well for the most part. Last year’s broken rib was one of the exceptions.
The one concern here is his relationship with Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley. Haley and Roethlisberger would seem like a poor match because Roethlisberger’s game is not quick drop backs and short throws. While he did miss the playoffs in his first season with Haley, I don’t think you can necessarily blame Haley for that considering how well Roethlisberger was playing before getting hurt. There have been rumors of conflict, however, and I don’t think you can argue that they wouldn’t have been better off keeping Bruce Arians and not hiring Haley.
2nd round rookie Le’Veon Bell is expected to be the feature back for the Steelers, but Todd Haley has never been one for using just one running back. Even when he had Jamaal Charles setting a record at his disposal in 2010, he preferred to use both Charles and Thomas Jones. One of Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer will steal carries away from Bell, but overall I expect their running game to be better than it was last year.
One of the reasons for an expected improved running game is their offensive line. The 31st ranked offensive line in terms of run blocking last year, they were largely responsible for their inability to establish anything on the ground (they held up well in pass protection, however). Injuries and inexperience played a large part, but 4 of the 5 projected starters on the line have been 1st or 2nd round picks since 2010. They have plenty of talent.
The highest rated of the bunch coming out of school was right guard David DeCastro from Stanford. The 24th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, DeCastro was billed as one of the top interior offensive line prospects in recent memory. He slipped to the Steelers out of lack of need and positional value, but the Steelers had a spot for him and gladly snatched him up. However, an injury before the season limited him to 138 generally ineffective snaps late in the season. He’ll be more than a full year removed from the injury week 1 and he should be able to have a very strong 2nd season in the league.
At center, the Steelers have another former highly rated prospect in Maurkice Pouncey, who went 18th overall in 2010. Pouncey is an overrated player who is generally ranked among the best in the NFL at his position because of his name and the lack of mainstream statistics for evaluating interior offensive linemen. He’s been just an average to above average starter in his first 3 years in the league, despite being voted into 3 Pro-Bowls. Last season, he ranked 12th on ProFootballFocus among centers in 14 starts, his highest ProFootballFocus rating in his career, though he really struggled in two starts at left guard. Still, he’ll be an asset for them on the line.
Starting at the tackle spots will be two former 2nd round picks, Marcus Gilbert, from the 2011 class, and Mike Adams, from the 2012 class. Adams, the more athletic of the two, will get the first crack at the blindside job, although this is expected to be a fluid situation heading into Training Camp. Adams played 497 snaps at right tackle last season as a rookie and was pretty average, but he still has plenty of upside going forward. Gilbert, meanwhile, played pretty well as a rookie in 2011 on 905 snaps, including playoffs, but was limited to 246 snaps because of injury last season. He should be a solid starter on the right side provided he stays healthy.
The most experienced veteran on the line is Ramon Foster at left guard, who played the most snaps last season of any of their projected starters. Playing primarily at right guard last season, Foster was a solid starter and he is experienced at both left and right guard in his career. Their current projected starting 5 on the offensive line should all be at least decent. The issue, however, is potential injuries and their lack of depth. The only returning backup is Kelvin Beachum, who was slightly below average on 314 snaps as a rookie last year. Guy Whimper is the only veteran reserve and he was awful when called upon to play in Jacksonville over the past few years.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The biggest loss on offense for the Steelers this season was #1 wide receiver Mike Wallace, who signed the off-season’s biggest contract with the Dolphins. However, that won’t be as big of a loss as it seems. In 2010 and 2011, Wallace was one of the best receivers in the league, catching a combined 132 passes for 2450 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, Wallace held out long into Training Camp last off-season, putting himself above the team and was not the same all season.
Wallace was ProFootballFocus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible. He caught just 55.2% of the passes thrown his way and averaged just 13.1 yards per catch. Wallace has demonstrated for the past year or so that he’d rather get paid above anything, holding out at his team’s expense and then chasing the money and going to Miami so it was probably smart of the Pittsburgh not to lock him up long term (not like they had the cap space, but still). He could easily coast now that he’s been paid.
The receiver they chose to pay instead was Antonio Brown, who signed a much more reasonable 5 year, 42.5 million dollar extension last off-season. Brown caught 42 passes for 499 yards in the first 8 games of last season, continuing where he left off the previous season, when he caught 35 passes for 677 yards in the final 8 games of the season. However, injuries to Roethlisberger and his own personal injuries slowed him down in the 2nd half of last season. Still, he doesn’t have a history of injury issues and he’s the clear #1 receiver now. He’s never really been a touchdown guy, catching just 7 touchdowns in his first 3 seasons in the league, but with Wallace gone that should change.
Emmanuel Sanders, who has been the 3rd receiver for the past 2 years, moves into the starting lineup. He’s been alright in limited action and could be a decent #2 receiver now that he’s gotten the chance. The other complementary receiver will be Markus Wheaton, a 3rd round rookie. I don’t expect him to contribute much as a rookie because rookies rarely do, but it’s worth noting that the Steelers have found Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders in the 3rd round or later. Wallace leaving takes a lot of the talent out of this receiving corps, but he wasn’t contributing much positive last season anyway and Roethlisberger should be able to make do.
The bigger loss in the receiving corps could be Heath Miller, depending on how long the veteran tight end misses with injury. He injured his knee, including a torn ACL, during week 16 last year and could start the season on the PUP, which would cost him 6 weeks at the very least. Even when he returns, it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to contribute so it’s a serious issue and a serious loss.
A very solid overall tight end, Heath Miller had the best receiving year of his career last year despite missing week 17, catching 71 passes for 816 yards and 8 touchdowns. The tight end position is a very important part of Todd Haley’s offense and Roethlisberger loves leaning on him as a safety net. The Steelers don’t really have a suitable replacement. No other tight end caught more than 7 passes for them last season. Free agent acquisition Matt Spaeth is a solid blocker at best and the same could be said about holdover David Paulson, who caught those 7 passes. It’s a more serious issue than Wallace’s departure. Overall, there are concerns here, but I like the unit’s chances of getting back in the top half of the NFL in scoring, which will go a long way towards getting them back into the playoffs, depending on how the defense plays.
How well the defense played last season might come as a surprise to some people as they’re considered to be an old unit, but they still have a lot of talent and Dick LeBeau always knows how to get the most out of his personnel. That being said, of the 7 starters over 30 on their 2012 team, 5 of them return and are a year older. Only James Harrison and Casey Hampton are gone, with Harrison being replaced by rookie first round pick Jarvis Jones and Hampton being replaced internally by Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta’amu.
McLendon will get the first crack at replacing long-time nose tackle Hampton. McClendon played incredibly well in limited action last season, both rushing the passer and stopping the run. He had 3 sacks, 2 hits, and 2 hurries on 73 pass rush snaps and also held up against the run on 62 run stopping snaps. It’s obviously a very limited sample size, but he did the same thing in 2011. His versatility will allow him to stay on the field on passing downs and play some five-technique, unlike Ta’amu, more of a pure run stuffer. Ta’amu, a 2012 4th round pick, didn’t play a single snap as a rookie because of off the field issues, but they’re giving him another chance. He’s the clear underdog in this battle though and I expect McLendon to win and have an impact.
On the outside of their 3 man base 3-4 defensive line, three guys will rotate, former 1st round picks Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood, along with veteran Brett Keisel, one of those aforementioned 5 starters over 30. Keisel was actually one of the best defensive linemen in the league in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end. However, last year he was very average, grading out slightly above average as a run stopper and slightly below average as a pass rusher. 34 in September, his days of being a great defensive lineman are probably behind him, but he could still be a solid starter.
He could also see his abilities fall off a cliff and in that case the Steelers would really need Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood to step up, even more than they would anyway. Hood was their first round pick in 2009, but has been a rare 1st round bust for this organization thus far. Billed as a future starter on an already aging defensive line, Hood struggled for playing time early in his career and then playing big snaps over the past two years he’s been awful. He was better against the run in 2012 than in 2011, but not great and also offered absolutely nothing as a pass rusher, recording 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 8 hurries on 495 pass rush snaps, a pitiful 2.8% rate. He was ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 34 eligible.
Heyward has played sparingly in his first two years in the league, playing a total of 514 snaps, but he graded out very well on 267 snaps last year and the 2011 1st round pick has proven himself worthy of more playing time. Hood isn’t good and Keisel is aging so there will be plenty of opportunities for him and he might outright win a starting job over Hood in Training Camp. It’s very possible both Hood and Keisel, pending free agents in 2014, are in their final years with the team. Hood is a bust and Keisel could retire so Heyward is the future of the position. It would also be a major help in the short term if he could step up as a key contributor on this defensive line because right now this looks like the weakest bunch.
In the linebacking corps, the Steelers have a pair of big money linebackers, Lawrence Timmons inside and LaMarr Woodley outside. Timmons was once one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL, considered on the level of Patrick Willis. He was ProFootballFocus’ #1 rated inside linebacker in 2010 and rewarded for his strong level of play with a 5 year, 50 million dollar extension the following off-season. 2011 was a down year for him because of injuries and because he had to play outside on occasion and rush the passer, which he was very unnatural at. However, in 2012, he bounced back to an extent, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked inside linebacker.
LaMarr Woodley, however, wasn’t nearly as good. He too signed a giant extension following the 2010 season, re-signing for 6 years, 61.5 million as a free agent. At the time, it looked well deserved for the 2007 2nd round pick, as he was coming off 3 straight years in the top-6 among rush linebackers on ProFootballFocus, topping out at #1 in 2009. However, his level of play has declining steeply in each of the last two seasons, to the point where he was barely a league average player last year. He’s also missed significant time with injury in each of the past two years.
Reports say that both his team and his teammates have ripped him for being out of shape and coasting once he got paid, which would certainly explain his steep decline. Early reports says he’s lost weight going into camp and is taking things more seriously, so he could turn it around, only heading into his age 29 season. That would be a welcome sight for a Steeler team that has managed just 35 and 37 sacks in the last two years respectively after leading the league with 48 in 2010. Pass rush has been the Achilles heel of this bunch over the past two years and they were actually ProFootballFocus’ worst rated pass rush team last year, after ranking 25th in 2011. Not only are they struggling for sacks, but they aren’t getting consistent pressure either. That probably has something to do with why they have just 35 takeaways combined over the past two years, after having 35 total in 2010 (more on takeaways later).
Woodley’s longtime bookend James Harrison really wasn’t do much in terms of rushing the passer either, though his run stopping ability was still very valuable. However, his steep decline in pass rush ability and his advanced age going into his age 35 season led to the Steelers cutting him, saving 5.105 million in cap space and 6.57 million in real money. They used a first round pick on Jarvis Jones to replace him and he could easily be the first Steeler rookie to start on defense since the 2001 season. He’s obviously very talented and was a projected top-5 pick after an incredibly productive year at Georgia, before medical concerns about a preexisting spinal condition coupled with a poor workout sunk his stock and dropped him to the Steelers at 17. He could prove to be a steal.
Jones’ competition for the job will be Jason Worilds, the more veteran of the two by default, though the 25-year-old is only in his 4th season after being taken in the 2nd round in 2010. Once seen as a potential successor for Harrison, Worilds has actually played alright in place of injured players on the outside in his career and wouldn’t be an awful starter or anything like that, but the Steelers seem to have soured on his upside as a difference maker. Either that or they were just really high on Jones, but pre-draft rumors had them very interested in a bunch of highly rated rush linebackers. Even if Worilds doesn’t start, which looks like it will be the case, he’s definitely qualified for a reserve 3rd linebacker role and could see more playing time if either of the starters get hurt or struggle. Neither Woodley nor Jones are sure things.
Rounding out the 4-man starting linebacker group is veteran linebacker Larry Foote, the 2nd of the 5 over 30 starters and easily the weakest of this bunch, maybe the worst starter on defense. Foote was brought back as a starter for another season out of necessity as they had other needs in the draft and little cap flexibility in free agency, but they’ll probably make finding his replacement a priority of their 2014 off-season. The 33-year-old Foote has been a fringe starter for the Steelers for years (with a stint as a starter in Detroit in between) and while he was once a very valuable backup and smart locker room guy, his abilities have almost completely eroded and he was ProFootballFocus’ 46th rated middle linebacker out of 53 eligible in 2012 and it’s hard to imagine him being much better in 2013.
They don’t really have a better internal option either. Stevenson Sylvester was drafted in the 5th round in 2010 to maybe be a potential future starter, but he’s too small to be anything other than a special teamer, though he is a very solid one. Sean Spence, their 3rd round pick in 2012, is also size challenged, but he was one of my favorite underrated prospects of that draft class because he did everything else so well in spite of his size.
Unfortunately, he suffered a nasty knee injury before the 2012 season and didn’t play a snap. He sustained nerve damage and doesn’t sound close to returning. He’ll almost definitely start the season on the PUP and maybe miss the whole season. While he personally says he’ll be back sometime this season, linebackers coach Keith Butler says it would be “miraculous” if he ever played football again, which is a shame. They also have 6th round pick rookie Vince Williams, but it’s a longshot that he sees serious playing time this year.
The secondary is the oldest unit of the defense with 30 starters over 30, but it’s also probably the most talented. Of course, as you can imagine with an aged group like this, there are also some potential concerns. Troy Polamalu is the biggest name (and biggest hair) player of the group, but injuries have been a major concern for him recently. Instead, their defensive back MVP of late has been cornerback Ike Taylor, who has been with the team since 2003 and has been as big a part of their defensive success as anyone, but hasn’t really gotten credit for it.
Taylor went down with a broken leg week 13 last season, just another of the Steelers’ late season injuries that eventually did them in. When healthy, he allowed just 30 catches for 448 yards on 68 attempts and while he did allow 5 for touchdowns to just 1 interception, he also deflected 10 passes, though he committed 7 penalties. Still, provided the soon to be 33-year-old’s abilities haven’t fallen off a cliff, he should be an asset for them, though age is a concern. His best performance was week 7, when he shadowed AJ Green for most of his game and held him to a career low 1 catch.
Opposite him, the Steelers have had several different cornerbacks over the years, but they’ve always held up in coverage. A testament to the Steelers’ defensive greatness, when these cornerbacks move on to other teams, they don’t play as well as they did in Pittsburgh and several like Bryant McFadden and William Gay end up returning. Dick LeBeau and his defensive coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for getting the most out of players and the front office deserves a lot of credit for identifying talented players who fit their scheme.
This off-season, the Steelers lost starting cornerback Keenan Lewis, a very important part of their defense last season. Lewis parlayed that strong season into a 5 year, 26 million dollar deal with the New Orleans Saints. However, as often is the case with the Steelers, they have a talented in house replacement who can make them forget all about Lewis. That player is 3rd year cornerback Cortez Allen, a 2011 4th round pick.
Allen served as the Steelers’ 3rd cornerback last year, coming into the game in sub packages and covering the slot. He played well, allowing 45 catches on 77 attempts (58.4%) for 448 yards (5.8 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 9 passes and committing 3 penalties. Because of this, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 17th ranked cornerback, 14th in terms of pure coverage, despite playing just 563 snaps, fewer than everyone ranked higher than him. He also ranked 14th among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed. He can play both on the slot and the outside and he should be able to make them forget about Lewis as he comes into his own in his 3rd year in the league.
William Gay, as I mentioned earlier, has returned to the Steelers. He was a starter for them in 2011 and graded out well, allowing 47 completions on 89 attempts for 506 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and 9 deflections, while committing 4 penalties. However, as is often the case when cornerbacks leave Pittsburgh, Gay struggled mightily in his one season in Arizona, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible, allowing 52 catches for 726 yards on 88 attempts, with 2 interceptions to 1 touchdown. He deflected just 3 passes and committed 6 penalties. He’s only 28 though, so now back in Pittsburgh, he should be more than capable as a 3rd cornerback, coming on the field in sub packages, playing outside, and moving Allen to the slot. If there are any issues with the top-3 cornerbacks, Curtis Brown is the 4th cornerback, though he’s been inconsistent at best in two seasons after going in the 3rd round in 2011.
While Troy Polamalu is the better known of Pittsburgh’s safeties, it was Ryan Clark who played every game last season, except for week 1 when he had to sit out in Denver’s high altitude because of his sickle cell trait. Though he’s entering into his age 34 season, Clark seems to be getting better with age, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked safety in 2012, excelling in both coverage and run stuffing. At his advanced age, it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep this up though.
Polamalu, meanwhile, is actually younger than him going into his age 32 season, but it hasn’t seemed like it the way injuries have been keeping him out of the lineup of late. He’s missed 22 games over the past 4 years and in those 22 games, they’ve allowed 20.2 points per game. With him, however, they allow just 15.5 points per game. He might be their single most important defensive player when healthy because he can impact the game with his mere presence and luckily injuries haven’t sapped his abilities when he has been able to suit up.
Despite playing in just 7 games last season, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked safety last year and no one rated higher than him played fewer snaps than his 408. In 2011, when he played all 16 games, he was the highest rated safety. It’ll obviously be huge for them if he can stay healthy, despite his age. If he were to get hurt, or if Clark were to miss time, rookie 4th round pick Sharmarko Thomas would probably step into the lineup. The Steelers traded a future 3rd round pick to select him and obviously see him as a future starter. He lacks size, which is about it, but it could be an issue for him as he tries to stay healthy long term, much like Bob Sanders.
I mentioned the Steelers’ recent lack of takeaways, that’s something that should turn around. Since 2002, there have been 47 teams with 20 or fewer takeaways. On average, the following season, they’ve had 7.13 more takeaways the following season, which has translated to an extra 1.35 wins. Takeaways and turnovers and in general tend to be really random and the Steelers also have too much defensive talent to have this few turnovers. That will help their offense as well. They should be among the best defensive teams in the league again this season.
It’s impossible to be a lifelong Steelers fan 45 years old or younger and know what’s it’s like to have their team’s Head Coach on the hot seat. Chuck Noll coached successfully from 1969 to 1991, going 193-148 and winning 4 Super Bowls and when he retired, they hired a young defensive coordinator from Kansas City by the name of Bill Cowher. Cowher coached from 1992 to 2006, going 149-90 and winning a Super Bowl and when he retired in 2006, they hired a young defensive coordinator from Minnesota by the name of Mike Tomlin. Tomlin has gone 63-33 since and won the organization’s 6th Super Bowl title (most all time).
It’s tough to compare anyone to Cowher and Noll, but Tomlin can be mentioned in the same sentence with those two in a favorable way. He’s one of the league’s premier Head Coaches and possibly the most exciting part for Steelers fans is that he’s only 41. It could be another decade plus before the Steelers have to worry about the Head Coaching position. On top of that, they also have one of the league’s best coordinators in Dick LeBeau, who coordinates the defense. The 75 year old has been there since 2004 and has 2 Super Bowl rings in that time.
The Steelers no longer have the talent they once did when they won 12 games in back-to-back seasons and made the Super Bowl twice in 4 years, but they should have a bounce back year. It took a lot of bad luck for them to finish at .500 last season, in terms of injuries and turnovers, and if they outgain opponents by as much as they did last year, it should translate into more wins. As is usually the case with teams that have a decline in wins of 4 or more like the Steelers did last year, they should bounce back at least half of that.
I think they’ll split their season series with Baltimore and while Cincinnati has had a ton of trouble beating playoff teams over the past 2 seasons, I think those two teams are evenly matched enough to split that series. I think they’ll probably take both against Cleveland, which puts them at about 4-2 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Tennessee, Chicago, Buffalo, Detroit, and Miami. They might be better than all 5 of those teams and should win at least 4. The road has been a bigger issue for them, as they’ve dropped several winnable non-divisional games there over the past few years. Games against Minnesota, Oakland, and the Jets which might seem easy could be trap games, while games in New England and Green Bay will be very tough. I have them winning 2 of those 5 and finishing at 10-6, sneaking back into the playoffs as a wild card.
Projection: 10-6 2nd in AFC North