After last year’s 12-4 finish, expectations for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers were high. The team’s front office, coaches, players and, most importantly, fans believed that improving on last season’s first-round playoff exit was well within the realm of possibility.
A deeper run in the playoffs required addressing some key weaknesses during the offseason. The Steelers spent last spring and summer re-signing important contributors, taking on a few free agents and bringing in some new blood through the draft.
As in any year, a few of those free-agent signings and draft picks paid off. Re-signing Keenan Lewis proved to be a great decision. The cornerback is a big reason why the Steelers have the top pass defense in the league. Opposing passers went after him relentlessly in the first half of the season, but Lewis held up beautifully, showed the ability to lock down receivers and looked like a long-term keeper for the team.
Others have performed about as well as could be expected. Rookie offensive lineman Mike Adams has had an up-and-down season that is normal for a second-round draft pick.
On the plus side, he has played more snaps at right tackle than any other player this season. He also has been an effective run-blocker, helping the Steelers' line generate 4.12 adjusted-line yards per rush over right tackle, good for 13th in the league. Adjusted-line yards is an advanced metric from Football Outsiders that measures an offensive line's contribution to the running game.
At the same time, Adams has struggled in pass protection. By the Week 12 game in which an injury ended his season, he ranked 55th among offensive tackles in pass-blocking efficiency.
And then there were those who did not shine so brightly and who contributed to the team's failure to qualify for the playoffs. Some big-name stars failed to improve on past performances, and some rookies didn’t play up to their potential.
The following is a list of six 2012 Steelers draft picks and free-agent signings who fell short of expectations this season. The list is organized from most to least disappointing.
Too many dropped deep balls may hurt Wallace's push for big money next year.
The Steelers' fleet-footed receivers were supposed to be one of the team’s strengths. Following a 2011 campaign in which two Pittsburgh wideouts, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, surpassed 1,000 yards receiving and averaged more than 16 yards per catch, big things were expected from Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
Unfortunately, the Steelers’ wide receivers largely has failed to deliver. To some degree, their drop in production is the result of offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s conservative game plan, which has dulled the explosiveness of Pittsburgh’s passing game. But even independent of the team's offensive scheme, the Steelers' receivers have not measured up to their potential.
Wallace’s holdout was the story of the 2012 offseason. The star wideout sat out most of training camp, demanding “Larry Fitzgerald” money after he finished in the top 15 in the NFL in receiving yards, yards per catch and yards per game in 2011.
The team ended up signing Wallace to a one-year contract and putting off negotiating a longer-term contract until the upcoming offseason. Based on the receiver’s performance this year, the Steelers are not likely to offer top dollar this time around.
Thus far this season, Wallace has been well outside the top 30 in each of the categories mentioned above. And his performance has actually been even worse than those subpar conventional stats indicate.
According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers' deep threat ranks 78th among all receivers in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR), an advanced stat that measures a player’s performance when he catches the ball, after adjusting for the situation and opponent. Wallace also has generated 51 fewer yards over the course of the season than an average, replacement-level wideout would have.
Not exactly a great sales pitch for a big new contract in 2013.
Among WRs, Brown ranks higher in fumbles than in yards per catch this year.
Unlike Wallace, fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown signed a long-term deal during the 2012 offseason. Like his fellow wideout, however, Brown has underperformed relative to expectations this year.
In 2011, Brown became the first player in NFL history to put up 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season. He ranked in the top 20 in receiving yards, yards per catch and yards per game. Brown was also 21st in the NFL in DYAR, generating 204 more yards than a replacement-level player would have.
His lower conventional numbers in 2012 are partly due to the three games he missed as a result of injuries. Though the Steelers' wide receiver ranks 41st in total receiving yards, Brown is still (barely) in the top 25 in yards per game.
However, other stats show that his output has fallen off, even accounting for the injury. For example, his yards per catch have fallen to 12.0, bad enough to rank 67th in the NFL.
The advanced metrics paint an even more disturbing picture. Brown's defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) plummeted from 9.8 percent in 2011 to -4.3 percent in 2012. This means that Brown was nearly 10 percent more valuable on every play than an average receiver last year, whereas he is more than four percent less valuable per play than that same receiver this year.
For a big back, Redman has struggled in short-yardage situations in 2012.
The Steelers re-signed the restricted free-agent running back in the offseason and expanded his role almost immediately. Thanks to an injury to erstwhile starter Rashard Mendenhall, Redman went from the situational, change-of-pace back he was in 2011 to a feature back in Todd Haley’s more run-oriented offense in 2012.
Pro Football Focus thought that Redman was poised to have a big impact, labeling him a “Secret Superstar” before the beginning of the season and speculating that the Steelers’ ground game would not suffer much with Redman as a starter.
As it turned out, the real secret was that Redman doesn't seem to have what it takes to be a feature back. As his role increased this year, the back’s effectiveness decreased significantly.
In the five games that Redman started while Mendenhall was injured, he averaged 3.6 yards per carry—well below the 4.4 he averaged last year. Throw out the Giants game in which Redman ran for 147 yards on 26 carries, and the back’s yards per rush in his other four games as a starter drop to a horrendous 2.3. His last game in the starting spot was an absolute disaster that saw him produce seven yards and a fumble on two rushes against Cleveland.
Football Outsiders’ advanced statistics tell a similar story. Last year, Redman was 3.1 percent more valuable per play than an average running back. In 2012, he has been 14.9 percent less valuable per play and has generated 28 fewer yards overall than the same replacement-level player.
For Steelers fans, these stats only confirm what they have seen with their eyes all season. Redman has been frequently ineffective running the ball, especially in key short-yardage situations. For example, who can forget watching the back stumble into the line for no gain on 4th-and-short against the Chargers in Week 14?
Foster had trouble creating space against a less-than-stellar Jets defense in Week 2.
Pittsburgh re-signed restricted free agent Ramon Foster to a one-year contract hoping that he could help strengthen a rebuilding offensive line. An injury to rookie guard David DeCastro in the preseason quickly forced Foster into a starting role. Though Foster looked like a serviceable replacement coming into the season, the Steelers’ output on offense has declined significantly with 26-year-old guard in the lineup.
Despite significant injuries to its starters in 2011, Pittsburgh’s offensive line performed admirably last year, finishing third in adjusted line yards, an advanced metric from Football Outsiders that measures an offensive line's contribution to the running game. The middle was particularly stout, generating the sixth-most adjusted line yards per carry in the league on runs up the gut, where two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s runs went in 2011.
This year, by contrast, the Steelers' offensive line has produced the 28th fewest adjusted line yards, and the middle of the line has been especially weak. Along with Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon, Foster has helped produce the 31st-fewest adjusted line yards on runs up the middle. Given that 74 percent of Pittsburgh’s runs go over the center or one of the two guards, it’s no wonder the ground game has struggled so much this year.
Though not entirely to blame for what is ultimately a group effort, Foster has not played well this year. He was manhandled by Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins last week and made Pro Football Focus’s “Had a Bad Day” list after getting pushed around by a Jets defensive line that ranks 18th in the NFL in adjusted line yards conceded up the middle.
Burress has spent more time on the sidelines than on the field this year.
The Steelers brought back the former star wideout for another go in Pittsburgh after injuries sidelined Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery in the middle of this season.
The organization and fans hoped that his familiarity with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would help Burress fit seamlessly into Pittsburgh’s offense. The Steelers also hoped that the skyscraping receiver would make a good red-zone target for a team in dire need of offensive punch.
What Pittsburgh got was one catch for 18 yards in two games and a lot of fans struggling to remember who No. 80 was during his brief appearances in the Browns and Chargers games.
With production like that, it should come as no surprise that Burress didn’t exactly reestablish himself as a starting NFL wide receiver. Sure enough, the free-agent acquisition was deactivated once Brown and Cotchery returned to action. He has yet to appear in another Steelers game and will likely be gone in the offseason.
Ta'amu may be wearing a jersey with black and white horizontal stripes next year.
Pittsburgh’s fourth-round draft pick has had a short but eventful career with the Steelers. Brought in as a potential long-term replacement for aging nose tackle Casey Hampton, the 6’3”, 348-pound Ta’amu was an excellent run-stuffer in college and was projected to be a great fit for Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.
So far, Ta’amu hasn’t been that player. Despite Hampton’s struggles this year, the rookie hasn’t been able to get playing time. He has yet to get on the field for a single snap in 2012.
Making matters considerably worse, Ta’amu was suspended for two games after being arrested in the middle of the season. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
[Ta'amu] faces a number of felony and misdemeanor charges for a confrontation with Pittsburgh police on the South Side in which he is accused of fighting with officers while drunk and trying to escape.
Following his suspension, Ta’amu was waived and then put on the Steelers' practice squad.
Even if he manages to avoid jail time, the rookie from the University of Washington does not have a bright future in Pittsburgh. Lack of production on the field plus problems off it generally equal a ticket out of town for fourth-round draft choices.