Creating the Perfect Offseason Plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers
There was so much promise this season, with the Steelers establishing themselves as one of the best teams in the league halfway through. But things quickly went downhill following Ben Roethlisberger’s rib and shoulder injuries against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Since then, the Steelers have lost five of six games and could potentially add to that dismal record in their season finale on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
While the final outcome of this season may be disappointing, it is not particularly surprising after releasing several key veterans leaders but, more importantly, their recent history with playoff appearances. Beginning in 2001, the Steelers have followed up back-to-back playoff seasons with a missed playoff appearance four different times, missing the playoffs in 2003, 2006, 2009 and now 2012.
The down seasons have allowed the Steelers to add an impressive list of first-round talent in the draft, including Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons, and Maurkice Pouncey. They will need to hit on their more than just their top pick if they want to get back into contention next season and beyond.
Just as many tough decisions were made last offseason and the Steelers front office and coaching staff will face many challenges as the team is once again expected to be tight against the cap in 2013 .
As the offseason begins, this article will examine the current issues on the team, state of the coaching staff, potential roster moves in free agency and the draft as well as suggestions to create the perfect offseason plan for the Steelers.
Offensive Issues in 2012
Todd Haley was hired to replace Colts coach Bruce Arians to help keep Roethlisberger on his feet, improve the ground game as well as red zone production. So much for that. While Roethlisberger has been sacked only 28 times, the fewest since the 2005-06 season, he still missed three-and-a-half games due to injury.
The greater concern may be the lack of a ground game. After spending the time in training camp focusing on the run, the Steelers have averaged only 96.4 yards per game this season, down from 118.9 yards per game in 2011.
The scoring production was not much better as the Steelers are averaging only 20.8 points per game this season, only 0.5 points higher than last year. A major reason why scoring hasn’t increased is the poor running game and lack of red zone success.
Pittsburgh has a 52.17 percent success rate in scoring touchdowns in the red zone this year, up from 50.91 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the elite offenses in the league are scoring touchdowns over 60 percent of their red zone appearances.
Defensive Issues in 2012
For the second straight season, the Steelers have lacked the ability to make plays on defense.
Even though they ranked as the best defense in total yards allowed, the defense ranks only 10th in points allowed and have been dismal at getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
Pittsburgh only has 33 sacks, nine interception and seven fumble recoveries this year.
With an offense that struggles to put points on the board, the defense needed to step up by making big plays and they failed to this season.
Special Teams Issues in 2012
Though the special teams were not one of the elite groups in the league, Everest helped develop them into a respectable unit during his two years with the team. There was a distinct difference with the special teams this year under Amos Jones.
The coverage units were not impressive and every big return left players, coaches and fans looking for yellow laundry on the field as the return teams were plagued with holding and blocking in the back penalties.
Coaching Staff: Head Coach
The Steelers have some excellent coaches on their staff, but there are some big questions as well.
So rather than examining each coach, here is a quick look at some who could be on the hot seat, beginning with their head coach. Mike Tomlin is consistently ranked as one of the NFL’s best head coaches but, after this season, he will lose some of his luster.
Despite compiling a record 62-33 with two Super Bowl appearances and one championship, Tomlin makes some in-game decisions that leaves you scratching your head. Tomlin continues to make questionable calls with his challenges and struggles with time management. His use of time outs leaves a lot to be desired.
He has had a number of questionable decisions on game days such as the onsides kicks against the Chargers and the lack of two-point conversion attempts. He twice sent out Shaun Suisham this year for field goals over 50 years even though his kicker does not have that type of range.
Besides his struggles in game management, Tomlin is often accused of having his team “play down to their competition” and he preaches “the standard is the standard,” but has failed to replace talented veterans with younger plays.
Tomlin has yet to establish an offensive identity for the team as team president Art Rooney II has indicated that he wanted the team to run the ball more.
Then, of course, there is the question whether or not Tomlin has won with Bill Cowher’s players. Whether he did, Tomlin is facing a lot of criticism right now and this will be his most important offseason as head coach. Not only does have have to improve his roster, but his own performance.
Coaching Staff: Coordinators
Todd Haley was brought in to fix the offense and that didn’t happen.
There were a number of headlines involving Haley and his quarterback including when the two finally met and when Roethlisberger had to publicly apologize for comments that he made about the offense. Regardless of the headlines, the NFL is a results-driven business and, after a good start to the season, Haley’s offense did not deliver in the end
It is unlikely that the team will make a coaching coach after just one season, but Haley is going to have to reconsider his scheme for the Steelers and work hard to better utilize the talent that he has.
This should include refining the short passing game and continuing to put an emphasis on running the ball. By improving these two areas, the Steelers will have a more productive 2013.
Every year now there is chatter that it is time for Dick LeBeau to retire.
Did the defense live up to its statistical rankings? No, but they certainly did enough to help the team win games.
LeBeau realized this season that he did not have the players that he needed to run his scheme and, rather than force his defense on them, he adjusted his packages. He blitzed less and played more man coverage and the results showed.
With a few more players, LeBeau should once again have one of the best defenses in the league and he should certainly return.
The special teams was borderline dreadful this year.
The return game was lackluster and was plagued by penalties and the coverage units consistently allowed big returns, especially on kickoffs.
Amos Jones has been a longtime assistant special teams coach under Tomlin, but it became clear why he was never given full reigns. Whether he was in over his head or not, the special teams units were not good enough this year and Tomlin needs to go in another direction.
Coaching Staff: Assistant Coaches
The Steelers will have to replace their offensive line coach Sean Kugler as he is leaving the Steelers to become the head coach at UTEP.
Arguably one of the best teaching coaches on the team, Kugler’s units have struggled since his arrival three years ago.
This year provided the most hope with a healthy Maurkice Pouncey at center, the shift of Willie Colon to left guard and the addition of David DeCastro and Mike Adams in the first two rounds of the draft but, as with most seasons, injuries got the best of this unit.
Even though Kugler was a good coach, the offensive line continued to struggle and it may be a blessing in disguise that the team has to go in a different direction.
After being burned in a kitchen fire, Kirby Wilson’s return to the field was one of the great stories of the year. However, the running backs once again had a down year.
Wilson hasn’t developed any quality running backs during his time in Pittsburgh and it is time that his job status should be evaluated.
The failure of Rashard Mendenhall to develop into a top-flight running back is the greatest concern, as it now appears that the Steelers will need to invest in a running back through free agency or the draft.
There are a couple of nice complementary parts in Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, but neither has shown they are capable of carrying the load.
Odds are that Wilson won’t be replaced but, given his performance in Pittsburgh, Tomlin should find a new running backs coach.
The “Young Money” group of receivers was supposed to be one of the best in the league. So much for that, as the Steelers' receivers were one of the biggest disappointments of the 2012 season.
Mike Wallace was the biggest disappointment, as he followed his training camp holdout with a miserable season in which he was plagued by inconsistency and drops along with not fighting to make the tough receptions.
Wallace attributed his dropped passes to concentration issues, but that is simply not an excuse.
There were similar problems for Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders as they could not hold onto the ball, whether it was before or after the catch having too many key fumbles that cost the team games.
Where is Scottie Montgomery in all of this? He had some of the most talented receivers in the league to work with and his group did not live up to expectations. Besides the top receivers on the team, Montgomery failed to deliver and develop a young receiver in training camp to take over the fifth receiver spot.
There was a distinct difference in how the receivers were working in training camp without the presence of Hines Ward to take the lead. But did Ward mean that much to this group?
If so, the Steelers need to find a receivers coach who can maximize the potential of this unit. It is a passing league now and the Steelers need to continue developing pass catching weapons for Roethlisberger.
Offensive Unrestricted Free Agents
Byron Leftwich earned the backup job in training camp, but played his way out of a job in his limited opportunities during the season. Leftwich continued to be injury-prone, as he hurt his ribs against the Baltimore Ravens and just did not look to be a viable option as backup anymore.
With Roethlisberger almost guaranteed to miss some action each year, the Steelers need to find a more dependable backup quarterback. Leftwich is not that man.
Charlie Batch led the Steelers to an improbable win at Baltimore in what was likely the final start of his career.
Even though Batch always can step in and give it his best, his days as a backup are over. However, the Steelers should re-sign him and allow him to compete for the third-string role, but nothing more.
Suffice to say, Mendenhall’s days in Pittsburgh are over. Mendenhall never lived up to his potential in Pittsburgh and chances are that he never will. It is best for both sides topart ways.
Isaac Redman is a capable spot starter and a solid short-yardage back. There is no reason the Steelers should not keep him on a cheap, short-term contract as he can continue his role as a backup running back.
David Johnson’s season-ending injury basically ended his tenure as a member of the Steelers, as Will Johnson emerged as a viable fullback. Johnson will not be offered a contract.
Rookie David Paulson overtook Leonard Pope as the backup tight end, leaving Pope without a significant role this year. Even though the Steelers may need a tight end after Heath Miller tore his ACL against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pope should not be that tight end.
The Steelers will be able to find a more talented tight end with higher upside in free agency or the draft. Pope will not be offered a contract.
Mike Wallace was the Steelers' most productive receiver again in 2012, but that was not enough to warrant a massive contract offer. Even though he is the Steelers biggest threat, Wallace disappeared in key moments, such as last week when he had just one reception for 13 yards in what was a must-win game.
Pittsburgh should offer Wallace a contract in the ballpark of what they gave Antonio Brown last season, but nothing more. They are too tight against the cap to break the bank on a receiver as inconsistent as Wallace.
While they would love to have him back, odds are Wallace signs a big money deal with another team.
Ramon Foster is a valuable asset as a guard and backup tackle and could start at left guard next year. At the very least, he is a versatile backup who, for a fair price, should be brought back on a short-term contract.
Doug Legursky is a quality backup at center, but is not a viable option at guard. The coaching staff indicated that earlier this year when they shifted Maurkice Pouncey to left guard rather than start Legursky there. If a backup is that limited, it is time to find a better option and Legursky should be allowed to walk, but will likely be signed to a one-year deal.
Max Starks is not an elite left tackle, but he is a pretty good one. He had a solid year, especially considering that he was returning from an ACL injury. The Steelers should offer Starks a contract and have him compete with Marcus Gilbert for the starting job. At the worst, Starks would be a terrific backup at both tackle positions.
Greg Warren is a solid long snapper who will be signed to a one-year deal.
Defensive Unrestricted Free Agents
Casey Hampton improved his play as the season progressed and can be a valuable backup for the Steelers in 2013. He is worth bringing back for one season at a league minimum and with the understanding that he will have a reduced role.
Larry Foote knows the end is near and may retire. Whether he retires or not, he will not return to the Steelers.
Foote was a serviceable stopgap player, but nothing more at this point. The Steelers need more athleticism in the middle and need to allow Sean Spence to grow in that role.
Brandon Johnson was a quiet addition in the offseason during the season. He served his purpose in 2012, but should not return in 2013 as the Steelers should go with younger options.
Keenan Lewis should be the Steelers top offseason priority. Even though he had no interceptions, he led the league in passes defended as he developed into a solid second option at cornerback. Pittsburgh should offer him a four-or-five-year contract that will pay him very well. However, they should not have to completely break the bank yet since he only has one good year under his belt.
Will Allen performed nicely in place of Troy Polamalu. He is limited as a player, but proved to be a capable backup. Even though the Steelers need youth at safety, Allen should at least be signed to a one-year deal where he will have the chance to compete for a roster spot.
Ryan Mundy really fell out of favor with the Steelers, as just about every defensive back on the roster and practice squad surpassed him on the depth chart this year. Mundy will not be offered a contract.
Restricted and Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Emmanuel Sanders made some progress in his development, but needs to work on securing the football. He will receive a one-year tender from the Steelers and could potentially receive a long-term extension this offseason if Wallace leaves.
If Mendenhall leaves, Jonathan Dwyer will be the default starter heading into 2013. That does not mean that the Steelers should give him a big contract. Dwyer’s conditioning issues will limit the amount that he gets paid and he should be limited to a one-year tender from the Steelers.
Stevenson Sylvester disappeared this year. He once had some upside as a potential future starter, but at this point he is a special teams player. He still provides value here and should receive a minimum one-year tender.
Steve McLendon did not overtake Hampton as the starter, but has the potential to start next season. In fact, he should start. Against the Bengals last Sunday, he once again showed his potential when he collapsed the pocket which resulted in a sack. The Steelers will give him a one-year tender.
DeMarcus Van Dyke
DeMarcus Van Dyke will not receive a contract offer.
Potential Veteran Cuts or Pay Cut Candidates
James Harrison was the playmaker for the Steelers defense. Not anymore.
Age and injuries have taken their toll on Harrison and that reflects in his stats for this season. While he still leads the team in sacks, he has only been able to get to the quarterback five times this year. Harrison is no longer a force against the run either, where he only has six tackles for a loss.
Harrison makes way too much money for his lack of production and will either be released or have to take a massive pay cut if he is to remain with the Steelers next year. The problem with releasing him is that the Steelers lack quality depth at outside linebacker. An idea is reducing his pay and bringing him back as a hybrid linebacker, allowing him to play both inside and outside.
Harrison can still play the run and get to the quarterback well enough when healthy, but can no longer get low enough to be the tackles on the outside. By allowing him to play inside, Harrison can shoot the gaps while avoiding the massive tackles.
It would also allow Spence to slowly develop as a linebacker as he could split snaps with Harrison considering that his rookie season was lost with an injury.
Brett Keisel is one of the leaders of the defense and still brings a lot to the table, but he makes a lot of money and there is a former first-round pick behind him that his ready to play.
It is time for Cameron Heyward to step into a starting role next season, meaning that Keisel would be on the bench.
However, Keisel still has another season or two as a productive defensive end and is a perfect candidate for a reduction of pay.
Another injury plagued season means that the talk of the Steelers releasing Troy Polamalu has heated up.
Even though Polamalu missed a majority of the season and lacks the same burst that he had in his prime, Polamalu is not going anywhere.
When he is healthy, Polamalu is still one of the best defenders in the league. He was excellent near the line of scrimmage this past Sunday shooting the gap to make a sack and making stops in the backfield.
What Polamalu does have to do is adjust his offseason training regime and tweak his style of play so he isn’t so reckless on the field.
Willie Colon was placed on the injured reserve for the third straight year and it could be his final with the Steelers.
Though he had some growing pains, Colon was developing nicely at left guard, but he had some room to grow.
Now with yet another season-ending injury, the Steelers either need to bring Colon back at a drastically reduced cost or move on.
Colon may be the best option at guard as far as talent goes, but he is a penalty machine and can’t stay healthy. So even though they may lose out on some pure talent, if he can’t stay on the field, it is time to move on.
Now the same could be said about Polamalu, but he is an elite talent who can change an entire defense —the same cannot be said about Colon and the offensive line.
The Steelers would then plug in Foster at left guard, or even consider Gilbert there (if he loses the left tackle job to Starks) or Kelvin Beachum.
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert will have minimal cap room to spend this offseason and it is unlikely that he—along with chief negotiator Omar Khan— will be able to make enough space to make a big play in free agency.
By having limited cap space, there would few moves that Pittsburgh could make that would actually upgrade the roster. For the most part, they would be better off keeping their own pieces in place rather than bringing in an outsider.
For example, the Steelers could easily bring in an outside running back to try to upgrade the position, but the free agent list is extremely limited.
Steven Jackson was a great running back a few years ago, but is on the down side of his career now. Reggie Bush is not the type of back that the Steelers need and will be too expensive. LeGarrette Blount is a physical runner, but is he better than what the Steelers currently have?
It is tough to upgrade a position when the talent isn’t available and when there’s no money to sign the premium free agents. Instead, the Steelers will have to be wise spenders and look for free agent bargains that are out there.
Considering the fact they'll be looking for bargains, do not expect any starters to be signed. Instead, the Steelers will look to add depth at key positions such as linebacker, tight end and receiver.
With the likely loss of Foote and maybe Johnson, the Steelers will need to add a veteran inside linebacker.
Spence figures to take over the starting job at some point, but the Steelers will need a competent starter until he is ready to go.
Miller’s injury puts the Steelers in a bind because they will not want to spend a lot on a starting tight end, but need a more viable option than just Paulson.
If they have an opportunity, the Steelers may make a run at bringing back Weslye Saunders. He can block and was a developing receiver, plus he knows the system. But, as far as finding a dynamic player capable of replacing Miller, they would have to invest a premium draft choice.
The inability to find a fifth receiver and likely loss of Wallace means that the Steelers will need to fill out their depth chart at receiver. They could bring Plaxico Burress back at a minimum for another year, but they’ll likely want a receiver who can also play special teams.
At that point, it may be a better option to just wait until the draft or wait closer to training camp for a veteran who has been cut.
In the end, the Steelers will once again have a quiet free agency period and may make a few “roster filler” type moves and nothing more.
The 2013 NFL Draft
The one benefit of missing the playoffs is having a higher draft choice and the Steelers will need to make the most of this opportunity.
They need help at virtually every position and need to approach the top of the draft by taking the best available prospect.
But if they were to draft by need, the biggest needs are at outside linebacker, inside linebacker, running back, nose tackle and safety.
An elite pass rusher would go a long way at returning the defense to an elite level.
Right now the Steelers are getting nothing from their pass rushers and that is what makes LeBeau’s defense tick. If the Steelers are going to find one, it is going to have to be in the first round as pass rushers are a necessity to combat the elite passing attacks found around the league today.
The top pass rushers that could be available for the Steelers include Dion Jordan of Oregon and Ezekiel Ansah of B.Y.U.
While Spence is the future at inside linebacker, there are some questions on how well he can return from his knee injury. The only inside linebacker worth considering early is Manti Te'o
Te'o does everything well and would add a high character player who could develop into the leader of the defense for the next decade.
The Steelers need a back to replace Mendenhall, but there is no value in the first round. They could wait until the second and try to grab a player such as Wisconsin’s Montee Ball or wait even longer and go with a dynamic runner such as Ray Graham from Pitt.
John Jenkins of Georgia is a massive nose tackle that could be the next anchor for the Steelers defense for years to come and they could potentially trade down in the draft to get him while accumulating more picks, or more likely grab him in the second round.
One of the more popular picks for the Steelers will likely be one of the top safeties given the age of Polamalu and Ryan Clark. However, any safety that the Steelers would draft would be at least one year away from starting.
But getting away from specifics, what do the Steelers really need to take way from this draft?
The Steelers could find immediate starters at running back, inside linebacker or outside linebacker. All three areas are in the need of an upgrade and none of the positions have young players who are locks as future starters.
As far as future starters go, the Steelers have a few areas in which they need to find players which will need a year or two to develop before stepping in. These include safety and tight end, as age an injury are beginning to take their toll on the current starters.
Besides looking for starters, the Steelers depth was tested in 2012 and they need to upgrade several areas prior to the start of the 2013 season.
The biggest area that needs an upgrade is at backup quarterback where the Steelers could use a true developmental prospect.
Leftwich and Batch are no longer the answer, especially watching young quarterbacks coming in and performing at a high level on a weekly basis.
The Steelers will also need add physical wide receiver to add to the mix. Their current crop of receivers struggle against press coverage and a physical presence would help in the red zone.
Even though they drafted Alameda Ta'amu last season, another nose tackle prospect would be a nice addition as well.
Ta'amu may not stick around too long and the Steelers could use someone to develop besides McLendon. By keeping Hampton around for another season, the team does have time to develop young talent at the position.
If none of these prospects are available, the Steelers could look to add more talent at tackle, defensive end or cornerback
Even though there are three starting capable tackles on the roster right now with Starks, Gilbert and Adams, there is always room for an elite tackle. It is important that if the Steelers take a tackle early that it is a left tackle. There are already enough right tackles on the roster.
Pittsburgh has already spent two top draft picks on defensive ends, but if there is an elite prospect who could potentially dominate, they can't pass them up. Imagine having an end who could make the same type of impact for the Steelers that J.J. Watt does for the Houston Texans?
Then after years of being talent starved at cornerback, the Steelers are pretty deep at the position right now. However, teams can never have enough good cornerbacks and the Steelers could always use a playmaker at the position.
The Steelers need to hit on their top three picks and considering their top needs, here is a three-round mock draft based off of Walter Football’s Three Round Mock Draft.
Round 1: Ezekiel Ansah, OLB, B.Y.U.
Ansash is a raw player who will need a year to develop, but has the chance to be an elite pass rusher. He will have to develop against the run and the pass in his first year, but could step in as a rusher on passing downs. Ansah has a huge upside and is worth the risk.
Round 2: Eric Reid, S, L.S.U.
Eric Reid is a big, physical safety who would be solid value in the second round. He comes from a program that has sent a lot of quality defensive backs into the NFL and would have a year to learn behind two of the best safeties in the league while playing on passing downs.
Round 3: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
The 2013 crop of running backs isn’t particularly impressive, so the Steelers can wait until the middle of the draft to find one. Montee Ball isn’t the most dynamic runner, but with an improved line could be a solid feature back.