Stat Predictions for Pittsburgh Steelers Key Offensive Players
In 2011, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense was a confusing dichotomy of good and bad, able and anemic and great and groan-worthy. The unit's approach seemed far less about consistent strides and more in line with the story Jekyll and Hyde, often inexplicably going from "gangbusters" to "bubble busters" from play to play, sinner game to game.
Nobody questions that the Black and Gold will field a talented offense once again in 2012. However, Steelers Country is well aware of the need for improvement from the group despite the inherent ability of a retooled roster. Frankly, despite their potential, the end result last season was too often, well.... offensive.
With the infusion of new talent along the offensive line, the optimism begotten from running backs and receivers whose talents are only limited by what amazing feat they will accomplish next, and the return of key veterans—including franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—it seems likely that group as a whole should match or exceed last season's totals.
Certainly, there will be growing pains. With a new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, and a "Rosetta Stone" offense, the regular season will not be without its early pitfalls. However, it will not be absent of steady improvement either.
Barring health, a facet of football in which the Steelers are due for good graces, the team should distinguish itself among the more dangerous offenses in the game by midseason by improving in the following ways: more able offensive line play, more advantageous playcalling, increased red-zone touchdown percentage and a little bit of "tweaking" by a certain quarterback that has long been the 'Burgh's favorite gunslinger.
So, which offensive "skill"** players are bound to become the biggest contributors to the Black and Gold cause in 2012? Let's look at some projected statistics for the team's key offensive players this upcoming season.
**-I hate that phrase, as though linemen don't have "skill." Can anyone think of a better term?
Where else can this list possibly start than with the straw that stirs the drink?
Franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had endured a strange offseason. First, despite his apparent wishes to the contrary, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was "relieved" of his duties, "retiring" to Indianapolis. Then, Todd Haley was hired as his replacement, a decision that had many speculating about the potential turbulent working nature between the O.C. and Q.B. Finally, in a summer that saw wonderful Big Ben accomplishments, such as the announcement of his future fatherhood and his graduation from college, the bigger headlines in recent times have involved his comments about learning a new offensive system.
You would swear that "Rosetta Stone" was a curse word.
Oh, and did I mention that the owner asked Big Ben to "tweak" his play? One would have sworn that tweak meant "radically alter to an unidentifiable degree."
While the learning curve of a new offense will be a challenge, anyone who believes for a second that the system isn't tailor-made for the skills of No. 7—even a "tweaked" mold of the man—is out of his or her wits.
One look at last season's statistics reveals that Ben has room to show even more upside compared to 2011:
324-of-513 (comp/att); 4,077 yds; 63.2%, 7.9 ypa, 21 TD, 14 INT, 40 sacks
First and foremost, the Steelers have effectively made it common knowledge that they intend to run the ball more often next season. Ben's 513 passing attempts were the highest of his career, and that total will not be eclipsed next season.
However, as any real football fans knows, the "volume numbers" aren't the difference between winning and losing at the quarterback position. Efficiency is the key, and the real money maker is how a quarterback gets the most out of every throw; thus, indicators such as yards per attempt, touchdown/interception ratio and percentage and quarterback rating are the real measures of the man behind center.
In fact, with an improved offensive line, if the Steelers are able to better pass protect and run the ball (particularly the latter), the end result—courtesy of both play action passing and forcing defenses to honor both phases of the game—will be better efficiency stats.
This isn't to say Roethlisberger is not efficient; this IS to say he could be even more efficient in a better balanced offense, which would be largely dictated by two things: utilizing a system that is talent-oriented and featuring an improved offensive line.
Look at Ben's early career numbers. In his first two seasons, he averaged 8.9 yards per throw. From then to now, he still has the benefit of a great defense. However, he averaged such a lofty average despite inexperience. It's amazing what a running game and solid pass protection will do for efficiency.
The Steelers record was 29-5 over that stretch with Roethlisberger at the helm. While he's taken more onus of the offense today, make no mistake that the focus on improved line play and running the ball effectively will make the success rate per throw even more debilitating for defenses to contain.
Efficiency should be the focus for Big Ben this season, so long as it doesn't entirely compromise his style of play. For example, one key area for improvement is bolstering his average yards per attempt back above eight yards per throw.
Efficiency is not limited to numbers. It is also situational.
Extending the play is not an issue, so long as No. 7 knows when the play is actually lost. And likewise, taking timely chances is part of his charm, so long as a higher percentage of those risks than ever before fall in the Steelers' favor.
Asked to tweak his game, Art Rooney II had Ben's durability in mind. However, if he can focus on the finer nuances of the new offense and continually develop chemistry throughout the season with an already proven litany of talent, Ben could "tweak" in more ways than one.
In fact, why limit it to "tweaking?" Next season, Roethlisberger needs to focus on "peaking."
No. 7 should reveal himself to be a more disciplined gunslinger in 2012.
Of important note: Ben has started 16 games only once in his career, so I have to assume one game lost due to injury.
Projected 2012 Statistics, assuming 15 games played:
325-of-493 (comp/att); 4,250 yds; 66%, 8.6 ypa, 27 TD, 10 INT, 28 sacks
Last season, discounting quarterback runs on intended passing plays, the Steelers attempted on well over 570 offensive plays while only focusing on the rushing attack through the running backs on approximately 386 attempts.
I expect that gap to close this season, though the edge in play-calling percentage should still weight heavily in favor of the passing game, despite the added focus (or "advertised" focus on running). This is, after all, a passing league.
And, if you're going to succeed in a passing league, franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is absolutely still far and away the absolute keystone piece of the championship puzzle.
With a few more rushing attempts per game, I anticipate in the realm of 430 total runs by the Black and Gold.
So, how will these attempts be divided? Certainly, there is a lot of talent on the depth chart to share the load.
The bulk of the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Isaac Redman, a running back whose timely conversions and opportune playmaking made him a fan favorite off the bench. He flashed his potential at the end of last season, averaging seven yards per carry against the Browns and Broncos. In fact, his total body of work was only limited by the offense's stubborn refusal to forgo passing on Ben's bum ankle in windy Cleveland, followed by the unit's necessity to stay in the air after falling behind in Denver.
One of the favorites to help Redman shoulder the load in the running game is Jonathan Dwyer, a seemingly refocused back who has begun to take his football career much more seriously, showing up in to camp in his best condition yet.
The biggest mystery for the running corps is the return of Rashard Mendenhall, who will not return until at least after Week 6 following a devastating ACL tear at the end of the 2011 season. While he may not be the focal point of the team's rushing attack at any point of 2012, my vote is for "Mendy" to mend well enough to contend with Dwyer for the second-most careers on the squad by season's end.
Lastly, two "burner" backs are Baron Batch and Chris Rainey. Baron, a fan favorite who suffered a season-ending injury of his own as a rookie in camp, and Rainey, a stud prospect who many expect will electrify fans in 2012 with his own blazing speed, could both add a great new dimension to the Steelers' offensive attack.
With Batch and Rainey both having the ability to explode into the second level behind able blocking, I can't help but long for the timely screen passes that the Steelers so punishingly executed throughout the 90's. Additionally, the two backs both have soft hands as part of their personal portfolio, giving the Steelers a threat out of the backfield to further frustrate opposing defenses.
Projected 2012 Statistics
Isaac Redman: If the Steelers are truly committed to improving in the running game, the combination of bolstering the interior of the offensive line along with the balance of power and grace in Redman's running style should help them to achieve this goal. Success in this regard will further facilitate success in all areas of the offense, particularly red zone improvement.
240 att; 1,056 yds; 4.4 yds/att; 10 TD
19 rec; 70 yds
Jonathan Dwyer: While the "backup" job is not Dwyer's to win outright, I fully expect he will rank second on the team in carries, also relieving Redman on occasional short-yardage stints.
65 att; 227 yds; 3.5 yds/att; 2 TD
6 rec; 42 yds; 1 TD
Rashard Mendenhall: While Dwyer will get a number of early carries as well as the bulk of secondary attempts after Mendenhall's return, the percentage of efforts will slowly swing back into Rashard's favor as the better backup option toward season's end.
70 att; 266 yds; 3.8 yds/att; 2 TD
7 rec; 49 yds
Baron Batch/Chris Rainey: The totals above, give or take a dozen here or there, leaves anywhere from a couple dozen up through 60 rushing attempts left for two backs whose roles will certainly not be limited to traditional running. Gadget plays, reverses, pass catching, and special teams are among the roles that Batch and Rainey will compete to earn wearing the Black and Gold. Whether combined or almost exclusively the result of one of these exciting players, this is the remaining production I foresee for the Batch/Rainey connection.
48 att; 220 yds; 4.6 yds/att; 2 TD
33 rec; 380 yds; 5 TD
The knock on Mike Wallace has been the "all or nothing" argument, basically insinuating that his contributions consist of home run balls. Elsewhere, many fans feel like Wallace's game is lackluster, particularly when compared with the chain-moving, plays in tight coverage that peer Antonio Brown began popping out faster than a bag of Pop Secret.
Well, the "pop" in Wallace's game, particularly his deep threat, is certainly no secret. As he has focused his attention on becoming an all-around great wideout, able to make plays at the intermediate level of the field opposed to exclusively deep, his average yards per catch dropped last season.
Nevertheless, No. 17 finished with a Pro Bowl campaign, sporting an impressive stat line despite a slow finish. Conversely, his amazing start showed his incredible high-end potential.
While a tale of two seasons should not be expected in 2012 for Wallace, the truth should. Throughout this coming year, fans will find the truth is somewhere right in the middle, meaning the receiver should finish with similar statistics to last season.
Translation: Expect a slew of game-breaking plays, but don't get too hysterical if the receiver finds himself in an occasional drought.
Projected 2012 Statistics
69 rec; 1,180 yds, 17.1 yds/rec; 8 TD
...and a season-long reception of 83 yards!
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders
As 2011 progressed, the chemistry between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown grew from the sparks of potential and into the inferno of defense destruction. Whether keen instincts or sage wisdom, one close team follower foresaw Brown's emergence.
From 3rd-and-19 and everything between, the Ben to Brown connection lit up the Pittsburgh skies with first downs. Now, 2012 hopes to see more touchdowns between the dynamic duo.
With the incumbent team MVP focusing exclusively on his role as a receiver, leaving special teams duties to other great athletes (*cough, Chris Rainey, cough*), one can only imagine that the stat line for Brown will once again garner accolades, albeit another MVP, a second consecutive Pro Bowl, or an All-Pro selection.
Whereas the debate between the better overall receiver, Emmanuel Sanders or Antonio Brown, was a hot topic last summer, an injury to Sanders coupled with bad performances by Hines Ward opened the gates for Brown to ascend the ranks while his young peer effectively stood stagnant.
Naturally, this was mostly out of Emmanuel's control.
Sanders is a fast, resourceful and surprising playmaker that comes through at the least expected time. He will be the talk of many morning radio shows on at least a couple of autumn Mondays, particularly in showing flashes of the skill that put him in the "high potential" talks with Antonio.
However, the disparity between the rank of Brown and Sanders that now exists will continue to show glaringly on the sports page, particularly with the emergence and health of a determined and physical veteran whose leadership and production will help ease the loss of Hines Ward in 2012 (next slide).
Projected 2012 Statistics
Antonio Brown: 78 rec; 1,180 yds; 15.1 yds/rec; 6 TD
Emmanuel Sanders: 24 rec; 300 yds; 12.5 yds/rec; TD
With the loss of Hines Ward, along with a renewed focus on utilizing players' strengths in the red zone, Steelers fans can bank on a healthy Jericho Cotchery having a very productive year. In fact, 2012 should rekindle Cotchery's flame, particularly close to the goal line, where his skill set as a physical, tough-nosed receiver should be called upon often from the slot.
While nobody can replace No. 86 sentimentally, Cotchery can certainly help easy the transition statistically. Likewise, Cotchery possesses the veteran leadership and experience that the Steelers will sorely miss from Hines this coming season.
With such a young, raw group of talented "rockets and retrievers" at receiver, Cotchery will be vital in facilitating their continued growth and learning.
What better way is there to teach than by example?
2012 Projected Statistics:
43 rec; 620 yds; 14.4 yds/rec; 3 TD
He has the hands of his "fantasy football" favorite peers, and he has the blocking skills of a rugged linemen.
While he gets his due credit for little of it, particularly outside of Steeler Nation, he has the humility and work ethic to deserve all of his inordinate skill set.
Make no mistake, the Steelers are unjustly blessed to have such a specimen at tight end as Heath Miller. He is almost unarguably the most underrated member of the Black and Gold.
In a ranking of the most underrated Steelers of 2012, I recently wrote the following about Heath Miller:
To date, the Steelers' offensive system has not been conducive to the type of "Dallas Clark" statistics that most fans use as their litmus test for tight end greatness.
However, those privy to the finer points of the position understand that Miller is an incredible talent and the perfect tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
His ability to get body position on defenders, use his arms to create separation and show off his soft hands by snagging nearly every pass thrown his way are attributes that some of the game's more popular tight ends possess.
Like the game's "fantasy" ends, Miller is a downhill runner after the catch, though his style may not be the most graceful or flashy.
In the Steel City being a tight end means blocking on a regular basis, sometimes almost exclusively, and Heath is one of the most underrated downfield blockers in the game of football. Whereas Hines Ward was recognized for his superb blocking skills, Miller does not get as much attention despite dominating that aspect of the game in a manner that is irregular (and, frankly, quite superior) for his position.
On running downs or passing downs Miller is a steady blocker, practically serving as a third offensive tackle on many of the team's plays.
For his willingness to play team ball, despite possessing skills that could very well yield far greater individual accomplishments, Miller deserves great praise as a combination tight end. By combination, I quite simply refer to two adjectives: humble and able.
My admiration for the tight end runs deep. In 2012, his receptions and yardage should remain similar to last season, and fans should again look forward to a few of his unusual "catch bursts," such as in the first quarter of a 25-17 win against New England.
The true separation from this year to last for the underrated tight end will be touchdowns, where his effectiveness to make the catch in the red zone will help the Steelers to improve their production inside the 20-yard line. Clearly, this area must be a prime focus on Todd Haley's radar. One could easily argue the limited production in the area more aptly labeled the "gold zone" cost Bruce Arians his place in the Steel City.
Projected 2012 Statistics
50 rec; 620 yds; 12.4 yds/rec; 5 TD