Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Steelers were one of the just three teams to finish in the top-15 in rate of moving the chains differential last season and not make the playoffs, in a rare year where everyone who made the playoffs actually deserved it. The Steelers could have easily made the playoffs, and not just if the refs had made the right call in San Diego/Kansas City week 17. The Steelers went 2-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less and ranked 28th, recovering 43.24% of fumbles.

Of course, they were also lucky in that they had the 3rd easiest strength of schedule according to DVOA, although things aren’t much harder this season as they replace the NFC North and AFC East with the NFC South and the AFC South. They finished last season 15th in DVOA, 4th best out of non-playoff teams. In terms of rate of moving the chains differential, they finished 13th with a +1.00% differential. They moved the chains at a 71.81% rate offensively, 16th in the NFL, and allowed opponents to move the chains at a 70.81% rate, 15th in the NFL defensively. The Steelers went 6-2 in their final 8 games and lost by a combined 8 points in those 2 games and they had a +61 point differential in those 8 games.

So does that mean the Steelers have a good chance to make the playoffs this season? Not necessarily. The Steelers have been pressed up against the cap and aging defensively for several consecutive off-seasons and now enter the 2014 season with an overall slightly weaker team than they had in 2013. They lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery offensively, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, and Ryan Clark defensively and their replacements for those 5 are not necessarily adequate. They also still have an aging secondary.

One thing that remains the same is Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, as he enters his 11th season as the Steelers’ starting quarterback. Roethlisberger’s 2013 season was right in line with his career averages as he completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.30 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.0. In his career, he completes 63.3% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 219 touchdowns, and 122 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.6. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback last season. He takes fewer shots downfield now under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, which has lowered his YPA, but he completes a higher percentage of his passes and has a better touchdown to interception ratio. Going into his age 32 season, he’s still capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl, but everything has to be right around him, which it isn’t.

One thing Roethlisberger did last season that was unusual is play all 16 games, something he had only done once in his career prior. He’s missed 17 games in 10 seasons and will probably miss a game or two with some sort of injury this season, as his playing style leads him to take a lot of hits. If he does, the Steelers’ options behind him are questionable, after Roethlisberger attempted all but 2 of the Steelers’ passes last season (the other two were trick plays from the punter and the wide receiver). Bruce Gradkowski is a veteran option, going into his age 31 season. He’s completed 52.9% of his passes for an average of 5.72 YPA, 21 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in his career. Meanwhile, Landry Jones was a 2013 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned that the Steelers lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery at wide receiver this off-season. Those were the Steelers #2 and #3 wide receivers last season, playing 810 and 648 snaps respectively. Those are big roles to fill. Sanders has caught 111 passes for 1366 yards and 7 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons as a significant contributor, including a starting role in 2013. Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively in 2012 and 2013 among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s now in Denver.

Cotchery, meanwhile, is now in Carolina. The veteran is going into his age 32 season, but he caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns on 440 routes run last season, an average of 1.38 yards per route run. He graded out 45th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and excelled as a blocker. Markus Wheaton will probably be the #2 receiver in their absence. The 2013 3rd rounder played on 161 snaps as a rookie and caught 6 passes for 64 yards on 106 routes run, an average of 0.60 yards per route run. He graded out below average in his limited role. How he transitions to a bigger role this season is a mystery.

Lance Moore is a free agent acquisition from New Orleans and he’ll likely work as the 3rd receiver, playing in the slot. Moore is coming off of a down year, in which he caught 37 passes for 457 yards and 2 touchdowns on 334 routes run, an average of 1.37 yards per route run. Now he goes into his age 31 season, so his best days are probably behind him. He’s only a season removed from a 65/1041/6 line in 2012, but he’s only played all 16 games once in the past 5 seasons, missing a combined 15 games and his 2nd best line over that time period is 66/768/8, so his 2012 was pretty out of character. He’ll be a decent slot receiver, but that’s about it. The Steelers also drafted Martavis Bryant in the 4th round. He’ll serve as the 4th receiver as a rookie and probably won’t have much of a role.

Because of their off-season losses at wide receiver, Antonio Brown could have even more targets this year than he did last year, when he was targeted 159 times, 4th most among wide receivers in the NFL. He caught 110 of those targets (69.2%) for 1498 yards and 8 touchdowns and averaged 2.37 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked wide receiver, including #1 in pure pass catching grade. The only player who had more receiving yards than him last season was Josh Gordon, who is currently expected to be suspended for the entire 2014 season.

Now fully out of the shadow of guys like Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, Brown, 2010 6th round pick, is quietly one of the best wide receivers in the game. He’s caught 245 passes for 3394 yards and 15 touchdowns over the past 3 seasons combined and now he’s coming off of the best season of his career. He’s an excellent route runner and a perfect fit for Todd Haley’s system. He’s also a threat in the return game, if they choose to continue using him in that role. The 5-year, 42.5 million dollar extension they gave him 2 off-seasons ago looks like a piece of forward thinking genius. He would have been scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this off-season and he would have commanded 10+ million yearly, at the very least.

Heath Miller, the long-time Steeler tight end, could be 2nd on the team in targets. Miller was limited to 58 catches for 593 yards and a touchdown last season as he missed 2 games and was limited in others after tearing his ACL towards the end of the 2012 season. That should be behind him now and he was better towards the end of last season, as he caught 34 passes for 325 yards in his final 8 games. That extrapolates to 68 catches for 650 yards over 16 games.

From 2009-2012, he averaged 60 catches for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns per season and he could easily have a year similar, if not better, than that this season as the Steelers’ 2nd option. He’s also usually a better blocker than he was last season. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he should have another solid year. The Steelers don’t use very many two-tight end sets, with David Paulson being 2nd on the team in snaps played by a tight end, with 189. 106 of those were played in the two games Miller missed. Paulson struggled mightily on the season and had a combined 3 catches for 49 yards in the two games Miller missed. The 2012 7th round pick is not a good player and their depth at tight end is suspect. After Antonio Brown and Heath Miller, there are a lot of question marks in the receiving corps.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Steelers actually had a decent offensive line last season as they finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked pass blocking team and 20th ranked run blocking team. Things could be even better this season as they are expected to get Maurkice Pouncey back from a torn ACL that knocked him out 8 snaps into last season. The Steelers obviously believe he can return to form quickly, giving him a 5-year, 44 million dollar deal ahead of his contract year this off-season, making the 2010 1st round pick the highest paid center in the game.

He’s not worth that kind of money, even before you consider his injury. Pouncey is perennially overrated because of the public’s inability to evaluate a center (you can’t exactly blame them). He somehow made the Pro-Bowl and the All-Pro in each of his first 3 seasons in the league. Pro Football Focus can evaluate a center as they evaluate players on a snap by snap basis, for every snap of a season. They’ve had Pouncey ranked 21st, 19th, and 12th from 2010-2012 respectively, including below average in 2010 and 2011. He’s improved every year, but there are no guarantees he can continue improving this season, especially since he could be less than 100% in his first year back from injury. He’ll still be an asset for the Steelers, most likely, and an upgrade over Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace, both of whom struggled in Pouncey’s absence last season, but he is overrated and overpaid.

The rest of the Steelers’ offensive line should look pretty similar to 2013 this season, which is a big change for this unit. They finally seem to have some stability. David DeCastro is probably their best starter. The 2012 1st round pick missed most of his rookie year with injury and struggled on 138 snaps upon his return, but in 2013, fully healthy, he showed why some saw him as the best interior offensive line prospect of the decade, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked guard. He could be even better in 2014, in his 3rd year in the league.

Ramon Foster actually graded out higher than DeCastro among guards last season at the other guard spot, grading out 12th, but the veteran doesn’t have nearly DeCastro’s upside and that’ll probably end up being the best season of his career. The 2009 undrafted free agent struggled in his first two years in the league, but graded above average as a starter in both 2011 and 2012 before last season. We’ll see if he can keep last year’s strong play up. I’m skeptical, but he should still have a solid season overall.

Marcus Gilbert is also a decent starter and he’s locked in at right tackle. He’s graded out right around average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, though he has struggled whenever he’s been asked to play the blindside. He’s a decent starter at right tackle though and I expect more of the same from him going into his 4th year in the league and his contract year.

At the left tackle spot, Kelvin Beachum settled into the role last season. The 2012 7th round pick got playing time early in his career, in 2012 and early in 2013, as a utility offensive lineman, playing every position, but he struggled, strangely until he got to left tackle. Beachum took over as the starting left tackle week 6 last season and ended up grading out about average at the position, despite his struggles at right tackle as a rookie and guard and center early in 2013 and despite not having the stereotypical left tackle frame at 6-3 306. The Steelers are committed to another year of him on the blindside. He’s a better pass protector than run blocker. He’s definitely better than Mike Adams, a 2012 2nd round pick who struggled on 497 snaps at right tackle as a rookie and then struggled even more on 485 snaps in 2013. If Adams is lucky, he’ll be the swing tackle this season. It’s a decent, but unspectacular offensive line overall.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Le’Veon Bell, a 2013 2nd round pick, returns as the starter. He only rushed 860 yards and 8 touchdowns on 244 carries last season, an average of 3.52 YPC, but he broke tackles (46 broken tackles on 289 touches), got yards after contact (2.11 YPC after contact), and moved the chains (48 rushing first downs, 14th in the NFL). He also added 45 catches for 399 yards through the air. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked running back and finished 27th in elusive rating. He missed 3 games and struggled through an injury at times, but now he’s going into his 2nd year in the league and he should be healthier. He rushed for 578 yards and 5 touchdowns on 164 carries (3.52 YPC) and caught 28 passes for 252 yards in his final 8 games. 300 carries for 1200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns with 60 catches for 500 yards isn’t out of the question in his 2nd year in the league.

No other Steeler running back did much on the ground either last season, as they averaged 3.51 yards per carry as a team and, unlike Bell, their other running backs didn’t make up for that by consistently getting positive yardage, breaking tackles, and running through contact. As a result, they signed LeGarrette Blount from the Patriots this off-season. He’ll be a true backup to Bell. LeGarrette Blount is a big name after what he did to the Colts in the playoffs, rushing for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns. However, people forget he had just 6 yards on 5 carries the following week in a loss in Denver.

Blount averaged 5.19 yards per carry last season, including playoffs, on a combined 182 carries, but he was also available for a late round pick and a minimal salary the off-season prior, after averaging 4.14 yards per carry on 225 carries in 2011 and 2012 combined. His career average of 4.68 yards per carry is pretty solid, but he offers nothing as a pass catcher (23 career catches), pass protector, has minimal special teams experience (17 career returns), fumbles often (9 fumbles on 579 career carries) and has a history of discipline problems.

That being said, the Steelers signed him purely as insurance and a backup to Bell and he’s easily their 2nd best running back. Now they won’t have to rely on bums like Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and Isaac Redman if Bell gets hurt again. Dri Archer could also be in the mix for carries as Todd Haley wants to develop the 2014 3rd round pick into what Dexter McCluster was for him in Kansas City, meaning he’ll see carries, play in the slot, and return kicks. He could work out in that role, but he could just as easily end up like Chris Rainey, a Steelers’ 5th round pick in 2012 with a similar skill set. The diminutive, but speedy Archer (5-8 173 4.26 40) probably won’t have much of a role on offense as a rookie.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As recently as 2012, the Steelers had 7 defensive starters who were 30+. The Steelers got rid of James Harrison and Casey Hampton last off-season and now Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, and Larry Foote are gone, leaving Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor on an overall younger defense. However, the question is whether they are nearly as talented as they once were. As I mentioned earlier, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 70.81% rate, 15th in the NFL defensively last season. That’s hardly traditional Steeler defensive dominance. This off-season, they lost two starters in Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark, in addition to LaMarr Woodley, who wasn’t living up to his salary on a cap strapped Steeler team.

In order to replace Brett Keisel this off-season, the Steelers signed Cam Thomas. Keisel, going into his age 36 season now, is still available on the open market after grading out about average on Pro Football Focus on 574 snaps last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end as recently as in 2011. Cam Thomas, meanwhile, comes over from San Diego, where he was a decent reserve in 2011 and 2012, grading out above average in both seasons. However, he never played more than 485 snaps in a season. Those 485 snaps were last season, when he graded out below average. He can play both nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end and will see action at both positions in a rotational role this season.

The Steelers also lost Ziggy Hood this off-season, but that’ll be addition by subtraction. The 2009 1st round pick bust was horrific in 5 years with the Steelers, grading out as a bottom-5 3-4 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons. He played 646 snaps last season and he’ll be replaced in the rotation by 2nd round rookie Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt might not be great as a rookie, but he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Hood, even if he struggles a little bit.

Steve McClendon will be their primary nose tackle this season. He’s graded out significantly above average in each of the last 3 seasons, though on only a combined 667 snaps. Last season, he played a career high 355 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked defensive tackle, including 25th against the run. He’s purely a two-down run stopper, but he could have the biggest role of his career this season.

The only true every down defensive linemen the Steelers have is Cameron Heyward, a 2011 1st round pick who played 845 snaps last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. Last year was his first year as a starter, but he showed well as a reserve on 198 snaps in 2011 and 267 snaps in 2012, before breaking out last year. The talented 5-technique could easily have another strong season next year. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2015. The quartet of Heyward, Tuitt, Thomas, and McClendon should play the vast majority of the snaps on the Steelers’ 3-man defensive line, but Nick Williams and Daniel McClullers could see action. The former is a 2013 7th round pick 3-4 defensive end who didn’t play a snap as a rookie and the latter is a 6th round rookie who is a pure nose tackle at 6-8 365.

Grade: B

Linebackers

With LaMarr Woodley gone, Jason Worilds becomes the de facto top edge rusher in Pittsburgh. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th 3-4 outside linebacker last season on 792 snaps. He had 8 sacks, 21 hits, and 21 hurries on 378 pass rush snaps, a rate of 13.2%. Woodley, meanwhile, graded out 10th on 582 snaps last season, but was cut because his salary was too big, he was going into his age 30 season, he can’t stay healthy, and he wasn’t quite living up to his contract on the field. Woodley was also cut to make room for Worilds’ new salary as the Steelers will pay Worilds 9.754 million on the transition tag this season, though they’ve been unable to reach a long-term deal with him.

Worilds is still a one year wonder, after the 2010 2nd round pick played a combined 979 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 501 in 2011. However, he graded out above average 2 of those 3 seasons, so it’s definitely possible that the one-time highly rated prospect could continue this strong play into 2014. He’ll have to prove himself on a one-year deal, but he could command a lot of money in free agency this off-season if he repeats what he did last season, which would probably put him out of the cap strapped Steelers’ price range.

Opposite him, Jarvis Jones, the 17th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, will have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league with Woodley gone, after playing 646 snaps as a rookie. Jones struggled as a rookie, particularly as a pass rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The issue is that the Steelers have no real depth at the position behind Worilds and Jones, so both will have to play a ton of snaps, which could really tire them out.

Chris Carter, a 2011 5th round pick, has struggled on 235 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. Arthur Moats is a free agent acquisition who was a collegiate defensive end, but has largely played middle linebacker and 4-3 outside linebacker as a professional, maxing out at 401 snaps as a rookie. Jordan Zumwalt, meanwhile, is a 6th round rookie who can play inside and outside in a 3-4. The Steelers may consider bringing back James Harrison on a one-year minimum deal, for his age 36 season. He’s not much of a pass rusher anymore, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker against the run last season on 383 snaps. The potential future Hall-of-Fame and long-time Steeler great has always excelled against the run.

The Steelers used a first round pick in this past draft on Ryan Shazier, taking him with the 15th overall pick. He’ll replace Vince Williams, a 2013 6th round pick, who struggled on 405 snaps in a base package role as a rookie. Shazier will play every down inside, which is something Williams didn’t do, as Troy Polamalu would often come down closer to the line of scrimmage and essentially play linebacker in sub packages. Now Polamalu can focus on being a pure safety going into his age 33 season and they won’t have to tap into their safety depth as much.

Shazier will line up opposite Lawrence Timmons inside. Timmons isn’t the same player he was in 2008-2010, when he graded out 5th, 10th, and 1st respectively among middle linebackers in those 3 seasons, which got him a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension. However, since signing that extension, Timmons hasn’t been the same. He was 4th in 2012, but he was also 28th in 2011 and 25th last season. Shazier’s arrival could signal that the cap strapped Steelers are going to cut him and his 7.5 million dollar salary for 2015 next off-season. As for this year, he’s only going into his age 28 season, so he could bounce back, but expecting him to be as good as he once was isn’t realistic.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As I mentioned, Troy Polamalu would often play linebacker in sub packages last season. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 79.8% of his snaps last season, the highest percentage by a safety in the NFL. Polamalu will be a true safety this season, which should be a good thing because he’s probably their best coverage defensive back. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked safety last season, including 2nd in coverage grade.

The issue is he’s going into his age 33 season and he’s always been injury prone. He played all 16 games last season, but only 7 the season before and he’s missed 22 games in the last 5 seasons combined. When he’s on the field, he’s great. I mentioned how well he played last season, but he was also Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked safety in 2012, despite being limited to 402 snaps in 7 games. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 safety in 16 games in 2011 and #5 safety in 14 games in 2010. He’s graded out above average in every season dating back to 2007. However, he’s very injury prone and now, going into his age 33 season, it’s tough to know how much they can count on him.

With Polamalu now playing safety every down, Will Allen, the 3rd safety, won’t play as many snaps as he did last season, when he graded out about average on 376 snaps in 13 games. Ryan Clark is gone, going into his age 35 season. Ryan Clark was still a solid starter last season, grading out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, but he was a far cry from his 2008-2012 form, a stretch in which he finished in the top-25 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons and maxed out at 9th in 2012.

It’s unclear if Michael Mitchell, who the Steelers gave a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal this off-season, can be an upgrade though. Mike Mitchell was a 2nd round pick of the Raiders in 2009 based on his freakish athleticism (4.39 40 at 6-1 216), but he never really put it together in Oakland, playing an average of 394 snaps per season, maxing out at 508 snaps, and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 3 seasons. He only played 334 snaps in 2012, his contract year, as a reserve and was forced to settle for a one year deal in Carolina worth about the veteran’s minimum.

He turned out to be a brilliant signing for Panthers GM Dave Gettleman as he became a 14-game starter (920 total snaps) at safety, a huge position of need for the Panthers, flashing often and showing his athleticism. He wasn’t spectacular, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked safety, slightly above average, and was a key part of a surprisingly good Carolina team, led by a stifling defense. This is the definition of buying high though. 12 months ago no one wanted Mitchell and now after one year he’s worth 5 million yearly? It’s not like he was incredible last year and much of his strong play was as a result of a dominant Carolina front in front of him, which, by the way, won’t be following him to Pittsburgh. Buy high deals like this rarely work out. The only good thing is the Steelers only guaranteed 6 million and one-year of his deal.

Polamalu is one of two remaining starters over 30 for the Steelers. The other is Ike Taylor, who is going into his age 34 season and coming off of an awful year in which his abilities seemingly just fell off a cliff. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 97th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, and he was 105th in pure coverage grade. He’s been better in the past, but he’s never really been fantastic. He could bounce back a little bit this year, but there’s a good chance that he’s just done. The Steelers slashed his salary to 2.75 million and this is the final year of his contract, so this could just be his final year with the Steelers, if not in the league.

Turner will be on a short leash and could end up being their 3rd cornerback as they have a pair of solid cornerbacks. They don’t really have a 4th cornerback who could take Taylor’s spot as the 3rd cornerback if he continues to really struggle though. Those two solid cornerbacks are William Gay and Cortez Allen. Gay was the best of their cornerback trio last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked cornerback, playing on the slot in sub packages and outside in base packages. However, much of his strong grade was because he played the run so well. In terms of pure coverage grade, he was only 31st at his position. Against the run, he was 3rd at his position.

Gay doesn’t really have a history of dominant cornerback play either. His best year in the league was in 2008, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback, 16th in pure coverage grade. He’s always been decent in Pittsburgh’s defensive system, grading out around average in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but he was awful in one year away from Pittsburgh in Arizona in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He could have another solid year in 2014, but I don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did last season.

Cortez Allen, meanwhile, is a 2011 4th round pick going into his 4th year in the league and his contract year. Allen barely played as a rookie, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback on 563 snaps in 2012 and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked cornerback on 718 snaps last season. This year, he could become an every down cornerback for the first time in his career and line up against opponent’s #1 receivers, like Ike Taylor used to. He could easily have a very solid year that would set him up for a good payday next off-season.

Grade: B

Conclusion

There’s talent here, but this is hardly the Steeler teams of old. I thought they were a playoff caliber team last season, but had some bad luck and missed out at 8-8. Now, I think they have less talent than they did last season, which is going to make getting back into the playoffs hard, even if their luck turns around. They’ll be in the mix for a wild card spot in the weaker AFC, but I don’t know if they’re going to make it. I’ll have an official prediction once I finish all teams’ previews.

Prediction: 3rd in AFC North

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