The Pittsburgh Steelers ended their season with an 8-8 record for a number of reasons, ranging from a near-pathological inability to defeat sub-.500 opponents to injuries and everything in between. What started well, with the Steelers winning six of their first nine games, turned to disappointment, with just two wins in the final seven weeks.
The Steelers offense had a lot to do with the team's early-season success as well as their late-season collapse. Let's take stock of what that side of the ball accomplished in the 2012 season.
The Passing Game
With the Steelers bringing on Todd Haley to replace Bruce Arians at offensive coordinator, many thought it would have a negative effect on what had become a rather productive big-play-oriented passing game.
While the big plays decreased for the Steelers under Haley—Ben Roethlisberger's yards per attempt, for example, dropped from 7.9 in 2011 to 7.3 in 2012 and his 47 attempts of 20 or more yards were 21 fewer than in 2011—it didn't make Pittsburgh's passing game any less effective.
In the nine games prior to Roethlisberger suffering a shoulder and rib injury that saw him sit out the next three weeks, the passing offense was sharper than it had been under Arians.
In 2011, Roethlisberger had just four games in 16 with a completion percentage of 70 or above; in 2012, with Haley calling more conservative pass plays, he had five in his first nine. As such, he ended his season with a greater accuracy rating than he did in the previous year. He had 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions in those first nine games; in 2011, Roethlisberger had thrown four picks by Week 3.
The Steelers also converted more third downs during those first nine weeks than the rest of the league and were in the top three in time of possession over that span. It wasn't as flashy with Haley calling the plays, but it got the job done better than most other teams until Roethlisberger got hurt.
After Roethlisberger's injury, however, things were different. With residual pain and less mobility, the passing offense took a step back. His throws weren't as quick, opposing defenses did a better job in defending the short passes and the result was nine touchdowns and four picks over the final four weeks, including ones against the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals that directly cost the Steelers wins (and in the latter game, the chance at a postseason berth).
In terms of Pittsburgh's receivers, their 2012 stats reflected similar changes as they did for Roethlisberger. In 2011, two Steelers receivers—Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown—each had over 1,000 receiving yards, while this season, no receivers met that mark, though Wallace's eight touchdowns tied the number he had in the previous year.
Brown's lower numbers are a result of not just the coordinator switch. He also missed three games with an ankle sprain. Fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders was also banged up at times during the season, with rib and shoulder problems, and the result was the Steelers bringing in familiar face Plaxico Burress for the final four games.
In total, Wallace led the Steelers receivers in targets, with 116, and had 64 catches for 838 yards. He averaged 13.1 yards per reception and had eight touchdowns to six drops. He had three more targets than in the previous season (refuting his claim that he's been less involved with Haley as coordinator) but had fewer catches (72 in the previous season and a 63.7 percent catch rate compared to 55.2 percent in 2012).
The decrease in his average yards per reception (which were 16.6 in 2011), however, can be attributed to Haley in the sense that Wallace was asked to no longer just be a deep threat but participate in the passing game at various levels of the field. The conservative passing lead to his target depth decreasing.
Brown had 66 catches on his 98 targets for 787 yards, five touchdowns and four drops. His average yards per reception were down, from 16.1 to 11.9, for the same reasons they were for Wallace, but the shorter passing offense actually played to Brown's skill set better than Wallace's—his 10 percent increase in catches, from 57.5 to 67.3 helps illustrate that point quite well.
Sanders' role in the receiving game increased in the new offense. He was targeted only 41 times in 2011, but that number rose to 69 in 2012, with 44 receptions for 624 yards, a touchdown and three drops. Like Brown, Sanders' catch rate rose from 2011, to 63.8 (it was 53.7 in the previous year), and unlike both Brown and Wallace, his yards per reception went up as well, from 13.1 to 14.2.
Just looking at these three sets of numbers seems to indicate that if Haley remains the Steelers' coordinator in 2013, then it won't be a big deal if impending free agent Wallace goes elsewhere—he's less-suited to the offense than Sanders and Brown.
However, the real star of the Steelers passing game in 2012 was tight end Heath Miller. In Haley's ball control offense, Miller flourished. Though his overall Pro Football Focus tight end ranking fell from third in 2011 to 15th in 2012, many of the reasons for it had to do with Haley's changed protection schemes and run blocking assignments. Miller was instead put in the spotlight as a receiver more often than with Arians calling the plays, and he ended up being Roethlisberger's most valuable, reliable passing target.
With 71 receptions on 93 targets, Miller caught 76.3 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2012. He totaled 816 receiving yards, the second-most of any Steeler, and had eight touchdowns, tying Wallace with the most receiving touchdowns on the team. Miller led all rushers and receivers with 44 first downs. He also had four dropped passes.
Miller had a Pro Bowl-worthy season, but after tearing his ACL and MCL in Week 16, his status for 2013 is in doubt. With Miller being such an integral part of Haley's offense, they'll need to find someone else to catch passes and take up duties that typically fall to him. What happens with Miller in the coming months will matter more to the future of the Steelers' passing game than with Wallace.
The Run Game
It's fair to say that the Steelers' rushing offense is still a work in progress and that what we saw from the run game this season wasn't exactly the vision that Haley and Mike Tomlin had in mind.
The first priority was to find the perfect fill-in situation (first Isaac Redman, then Jonathan Dwyer, then a combination of the two, rinse and repeat) for Rashard Mendenhall, who tore his ACL at the end of the 2011 season and therefore wasn't ready for Week 1.
Redman got the start for the first three weeks and was named starter again in Weeks 9 and 10 after returning from an ankle injury; Dwyer who played the most snaps of any Steelers back this year at 388, got the start in Weeks 7-8, 13 and 15-17.
Mendenhall returned in Week 5, starting that game (against the Philadelphia Eagles) and again in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans, before injuring his Achilles. He got his starting job back in Weeks 11 and 12 before Dwyer took over to end the year.
As you can see, it was a constant rotation at running back for the Steelers, as they battled injury, inconsistent production and fumble issues while trying to find the right starter and the right division of carries.
With 156 carries and 623 yards, Dwyer was Pittsburgh's leading rusher in 2012. He averaged four yards per carry, had two rushing touchdowns and lost two fumbles and accounted for 27 first downs. Redman also had 27 first downs and two lost fumbles, rushing for 410 yards on 110 carries. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry and had two touchdowns as well.
Mendenhall rushed just 51 times in 2012, for 182 yards, 3.6 yards per carry and no touchdowns. He had one lost fumble and only eight first downs and was benched—and subsequently deactivated as well as suspended for one game—because of the fumble and low production, and because he skipped the Steelers' home game against the San Diego Chargers in protest.
The "big three" were supplemented by rookie Chris Rainey (waived last week), who had 26 carries for 102 yards, two touchdowns and a lost fumble and a 3.9 yards per carry average and second-year player Baron Batch (who suffered a late-season broken arm), who carried the ball 25 times for 49 yards and one score.
The Steelers had no true feature back and therefore no consistency in their run game. It was quickly determined that Redman lacked the every-down ability to stick as the team's long-term solution at No. 1 back; though he had 147 yards in Week 9 against the New York Giants (on 26 carries, his most of the year), he never had double-digit touches again in the season.
In Weeks 7 and 8, Dwyer had over 100 yards rushing each game, however he never approached that number again, with 56 yards his biggest contribution on the ground in the remainder of the season. Mendenhall's highest rushing total was just 68 yards on 13 carries in Week 5; though he had 11 in both Weeks 6 and 11, those carries produced only 33 and 50 yards, respectively.
Without someone capable of getting 15 or 20 carries per game and putting up around or over 100 yards on a weekly basis, the Steelers aren't going to have the kind of rushing attack they need to complement their passing game. Redman is a third-down and goal-line back by nature and cannot be the top guy; Mendenhall is about to be an unrestricted free agent and salary cap problems may mean he doesn't return; Dwyer has potential, but he would need another back to spell him; Rainey is gone and Batch is more like Redman.
The Offensive Line
As is generally the case with the Steelers, the team had one vision for their offensive line to start the season and ended up with an entirely different-looking line at multiple points throughout the year. Injuries, again, ravaged the line and replacements had to be made at guard, tackle and center.
Only left tackle Max Starks played every offensive snap, with right (and then left) guard Ramon Foster not far behind. Foster ended up starting on the right because first round draft pick David DeCastro tore his MCL in the preseason; he was joined on the left for all but the final three games by Willie Colon (11 starts), Doug Legursky (two games, with one start), and usual center Maurkice Pouncey (two starts).
John Maleki also had one game at right guard and DeCastro three starts at the position to end the year. Legursky had four games and two starts at center. Second-round draft pick Mike Adams appeared at right tackle in the first four games and ultimately won the starting job over Weeks 7 through 12 but was felled by an ankle and foot injury that gave the job to another rookie, Kelvin Beachum, to end the year.
So yes, it was another season of offensive line musical chairs.
Though the rotating cast didn't result in Roethlisberger taking more sacks than usual—just 30, compared to 40 in 2011—it still didn't keep the quarterback from getting hurt. The constant changes didn't help the run game, either, which had its own issues with consistency on top of the offensive line instability.
Even more disconcerting is that the two top performers, Starks and Foster, likely won't even be with the Steelers in 2013. Both are impending free agents and have made less than they're worth in their time in Pittsburgh. With the Steelers' salary cap issues set to continue into this season, they may have to move on to find the deals worth their time.
Colon's future in Pittsburgh isn't safe, either. For the third straight season, Colon's year ended on a trip to injured reserve, but according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, cutting him would mean a $6.5 million cap hit for 2013. They could push two-thirds of that cost onto their 2014 salary cap if they release him after June 1, but that presents problems in the future that they'd be better off avoiding.
Further, the Steelers will also need to hire a new offensive line coach, which could result in more personnel changes. Sean Kugler has decided to take the head coaching job at UTEP, his alma mater. So not only will the Steelers need to again try to solidify their offensive line amid likely cap-related departures, they'll have to find a new man to coach them as well.