Though football truly is a team game, a season often succeeds or fails based on the performance of a few key players. If that handful of contributors makes plays and comes through when it matters, the team wins. But if they don’t, the team will not be so successful.
It is easy to assume that those key players are what should be considered a respective team's stars, and that those with the highest paychecks will usually make or break a season. That is true to some degree. A disappointing campaign from the face of an organization can certainly torpedo a team's hopes of making the playoffs.
But it's not always that way. Not even a monstrous season from Calvin Johnson was enough to save the Lions this past year. More often than not, the stars' performances are a given, and the role players, substitutes and previously unknowns are the ones who make all the difference.
Coming off a disappointing 8-8 finish to 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking at an offseason full of upheaval. Some older players will move on. New players will arrive. Veterans will see their roles decrease. Younger talent will finally get its chance. In sum, the roster will probably look completely different at the beginning of the next season.
Regardless of how the team looks in September, however, it will ultimately be the play of five Steelers that will determine whether Pittsburgh makes it back to the playoffs or sputters to a losing record in 2013.
Two of them are critical to ensuring the passing attack is as dangerous as it has been in the past. One will need to help jump-start Pittsburgh’s ground game. Another will decide whether the Steelers can stop opposing running backs. And the last will be the key to the team’s passing defense remaining the toughest in the league. No matter what, all of them will need to step up their respective games in 2013.
So who are these five players? Read on to find out.
Will Roethlisberger and Haley iron out their differences in 2013
It seems silly to say that the Steelers best player needs to have a great year for the team to make it back to the playoffs, but Big Ben is so critical to Pittsburgh’s offense that the 2013 season may completely hinge on his effectiveness—just as this year’s campaign did.
The biggest issues affecting the play of the Steelers' starting quarterback next season will be his health and his relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
The first issue is very straightforward and (presumably) easy to address. If Roethlisberger stays on the field, Pittsburgh stands a good chance of winning games next year. If he misses significant stretches due to injuries again, the Steelers are looking at another tough season. Even if the team upgrades its backup quarterback situation through the draft—the most probable scenario given salary cap pressures—the second or third-string quarterbacks are still unlikely to be able to perform at the same level as a player who arguably ranks among the position’s elite.
With a healthy Roethlisberger leading the offense, the Steelers went 6-3 to open the season. Sure, those three losses were to subpar teams, but the team was still just one game behind the division-leading Ravens at that point and were poised to make a run at the playoffs in the second half of the season.
Instead, Big Ben missed the next three games, and Pittsburgh went 1-2. The team split games with the Ravens and failed to gain ground on its AFC North rival.
Though many factors contributed to this midseason swoon—including some that hurt the Steelers even when Roethlisberger was in the lineup—a drop-off in quarterback play was arguably what put the 2012 campaign on a downward path.
Backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch combined to complete 56.9 percent of their passes, an average of only 6.1 yards per attempt. They also only thrww one touchdown combined against five interceptions. They posted QBRs of 34 and 34.8 respectively. And, again, the team was only able to win just one game.
By contrast, Big Ben was arguably having the most efficient season of his career coming into the Kansas City game in which he got hurt. He had completed 67.1 percent of his passes, averaged 7.4 yards per attempt and had thrown 16 touchdowns versus only four interceptions at that point. And most importantly, the Steelers won six of nine games during that stretch.
After returning from the injury, he was not the same player, and Pittsburgh went 1-3 to close the season. In the final four games of the season, he connected on only 56.4 percent of his throws. His passing yards per game fell from 275.4 to 244.5. His touchdowns per game remained about the same (about two per), but he threw the same number of interceptions in those last four games as he did in the nine games before the injury. Two of those picks cost the Steelers winnable games.
Based on those numbers and results, it was not a surprise when Roethlisberger later admitted that he came back too soon.
The second issue is more complicated and harder to address. Big Ben and Haley clashed over play-calling in 2012, and there is some evidence to suggest that the latter’s offensive scheme doesn’t make good use of the huge, mobile quarterback’s unique skills.
But barring unforeseen changes this offseason, Roethlisberger will still be the quarterback next year, and Haley will still be the offensive coordinator. They will need to learn to live with each other and find ways to get the most out of their partnership.
The quarterback should dedicate his offseason to mastering Haley’s offense and appreciate that it is designed to keep him upright and healthy for longer stretches. The offensive coordinator should set his ego aside and refine his gameplan to include more passes down the field so as to take advantage of Big Ben’s ability to extend plays. If reputed coaching genius Mike Shanahan can install Baylor’s offensive scheme for Robert Griffin III, can’t Haley tweak his a bit for Roethlisberger?
Will these two strong personalities figure out how to coexist next year? That is hard to say at this point, but the fate of the 2013 season may depend on it.
Can Brown survive the potential loss of Mike Wallace?
Reviving Pittsburgh's aerial attack will also depend on the play of wide receiver Antonio Brown.
If the Steelers fail to re-sign free-agent-to-be Mike Wallace in the coming offseason, Brown will have to show that he is capable of shouldering the burden of being the the team's sole No. 1 wideout. For the past two years, it has been impossible to say who was the team’s first option at wide receiver because Wallace and Brown essentially shared that responsibility.
In 2011, Wallace caught 72 passes for 1,193 yards, which was good for an average of 16.6 yards per reception, and Roethlisberger targeted the speedster 7.1 times per game. Brown hauled in 69 passes for 1,108 yards and 16.1 yards per catch. The Steelers quarterback threw to him 7.6 times per game.
This past year, Wallace turned 64 catches into 836 yards (13.1 yards per catch) in 15 games. If he had played every week, his stats project to 69 catches for 891 yards. In 13 games this season, Brown grabbed 66 balls for 787 yards (11.9 yards per reception). Over a full season, he would have caught 82 passes for 968 yards.
Though it would appear that Brown seized the No. 1 receiver spot in 2012, that was not actually the case. The Steelers' quarterbacks targeted the two at approximately equal rates. They threw to Brown 7.7 times a game and to Wallace 7.1—essentially the same rates as in the previous year.
The difference in their stats comes from the fact that only 54 percent of the passes thrown to Wallace were caught, compared to 64 percent last year. Some of that is due to the nature of Wallace’s role—deep passes connect less frequently. Some of it, though, was Wallace’s fault. He was tied for 13th in the AFC with six dropped passes, whereas the year before, the receiver was tied for the 11th lowest drop rate in the league.
Wallace and Brown’s ability to thrive as a tandem has been both due to, and enhanced by, their complementary skill sets. Wallace stretches defenses and draws double teams, both of which free up space for Brown to catch passes on outs and crossing patterns underneath. At the same time, the latter’s abilities as a possession receiver ensure that defenses can’t focus entirely on the Steelers’ deep threat.
So Brown is going to face a tough challenge next year if Wallace plays elsewhere, especially considering that the Steelers probably will not find a player of the latter’s caliber through draft picks or inexpensive free agents. How he responds to the increased attention from opposing defensive backs will go a long way to determining how effective the Steelers' passing game is in 2013.
After a 2012 season lost to injury, can DeCastro live up to the hype?
Generating some semblance of an effective running game will depend largely on whether the Steelers offensive line can rebound from a dismal 2012 campaign—and that will hinge on guard David DeCastro’s ability to justify his first-round selection last year.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line was a sorry lot this past season. Not only did the unit struggle to protect its quarterback, ranking 15th in the league according to Football Outsiders’ metrics, but it also contributed to a rushing attack that averaged 3.7 yards per rush (tied for 28th in the league) and failed to take any pressure off of Pittsburgh’s passing game. Though the Steelers running backs were no great shakes, the line gave them little help, ranking 27th in the NFL in yards generated by offensive lines in 2012.
As in previous years, Pittsburgh’s front five battled injuries that limited the group’s overall effectiveness. Mike Adams, Willie Colon, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey missed a combined 34 games in 2012. Not having the same starting lineup from week to week certainly didn’t help the unit find consistency.
Losing DeCastro was arguably the biggest blow, as the 11 games he missed cost the Steelers a chance to evaluate their 2012 first-round pick over the course of a full season. One of the most-hyped offensive guard prospects in years, the rookie out of Stanford only played in four games at the end of the season.
DeCastro’s play was inconsistent in that limited sample, as could be expected from a first-year player. Against the Cowboys in Week 15, the rookie played very well, though. He was on the field for all 62 offensive snaps and allowed just one pressure on 45 passing attempts. Against the Bengals the following week, however, DeCastro struggled against emerging star Geno Atkins. Pro Football Focus graded his performance as the worst among offensive guards in Week 16.
If Haley (or if the rumors are true, owner Art Rooney II) continues to emphasize the run next year, the Steelers will need to see improvement from the heart of the offensive line. Its centers and guards were second to last in the league in generating yards up the middle. For that to change next year, DeCastro will need to show that he is worthy of that first-round selection.
McLendon has shown promise, but is he ready to man the middle full-time?
Whether Casey Hampton comes back or not, nose tackle Steve McLendon will have to take on a bigger role for the Steelers in 2013. How he performs with more reps will have an enormous impact on Pittsburgh’s ability to stop the run next year.
The 35-year-old Hampton is steadily running out of gas. Despite not missing any games due to injury, he was only on the field for 50 percent of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps. His skills are also on the decline. Hampton went from being one of the best defensive tackles against the run from 2009-2011 to one of the worst in 2012.
The former Pro Bowl nose tackle will enter free agency this offseason, and it seems very likely that he will not return to the Steelers in 2013. Even if Hampton does come back, his age will further limit his effectiveness and time on the field.
With that in mind, the team has begun grooming McLendon to step in when his predecessor moves on. This season, he was on the field for 14 percent of the Steelers defensive snaps. Though the sample size (136 snaps) is pretty small, it is fair to say that McLendon performed no worse than the incumbent. He averaged one tackle about every 19.4 plays and made two sacks. Hampton, by contrast, made a tackle every 19.0 plays and did not record a single sack.
However, if the Steelers run defense is going to get better in 2013, McLendon is going to have to step it up. He will need to show that he is an every-down defensive tackle who can force a double-team that frees Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers to make tackles.
If he does, the Steelers should be set at nose tackle for several years. If not, they will need to shop for another replacement.
Is Lewis a flash in the pan or a legitimate top cornerback?
Ike Taylor, the Steelers’ top corner, could also be gone next year. The two years left on his contract count for nearly $10 million against the cap in both 2013 and 2014, making the 32-year-old defensive back expensive to keep around.
Pittsburgh already got a taste this year of what life might be like without Taylor. The cornerback missed the last four games of the 2012 season due to injury, and the effect of losing him was not encouraging.
With Taylor on the field, opposing quarterbacks completed 55.2 percent of their passes, averaged 5.3 yards per attempt and connected for 1.08 touchdowns per game. With Taylor sidelined, the Steelers allowed a 61.8 percent completion rate, 6.5 yards per attempt and 1.5 touchdowns per game. Even discarding the game against Dallas’s third-ranked passing offense, the completion percentage allowed only falls to 58.3 percent and the yards per attempt to 5.93.
If Taylor is let go during the offseason, Pittsburgh will need another great year from free-agent-to-be Keenan Lewis if the team wants to avoid an even bigger drop-off in performance. The 26-year-old corner had an excellent 2012 but has to show that it was not a fluke.
Thanks to Taylor’s reputation as a cover corner, opposing teams went after the then-inexperienced Lewis relentlessly in the beginning stages of the season. Through Week 15, he was the second most targeted cornerback in the NFL.
Lewis did brilliantly in the face of this increased pressure, though, finishing second in the NFL in passes defended. He allowed just 51 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns in the first 14 games of the season. The corner held receivers to three or fewer receptions in 10 of those games.
In his second game covering the opponent’s best option, Lewis shut down Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant, limiting him to four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. In the four weeks prior to that game, Bryant had been on a tear, averaging 7.5 grabs and a little less than 109 yards per contest. The week after, the Cowboys star destroyed the Saints with nine receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
Lewis’s stellar performance will almost certainly earn him a bigger contract next year, very possibly from the Steelers. Whether his play will justify the extra dollars remains to be seen.
If Taylor leaves and Lewis is forced to cover every opposing team’s best wide receiver, week after week, will the latter be as effective? For Pittsburgh to remain as the NFL’s top passing defense in 2013, he will have to prove that he is.