Will Steelers' Depth Chart Changes Help Them Finally Win Games?
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
With an 0-4 record, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed to make some changes to their roster and their depth chart coming off of their Week 5 bye.
Keeping things the same certainly wasn't an option.
On Tuesday, their Week 6 depth chart listed Kelvin Beachum as the starting left tackle with Levi Brown as his backup. Former starter Mike Adams has been demoted to third-string offensive tackle, backing up Beachum, Brown and right tackles Marcus Gilbert and Guy Whimper.
Defensive end Ziggy Hood gave way to Cameron Heyward, while Vince Williams was given full control of the left inside linebacker job, though the team did re-sign Stevenson Sylvester, which likely means that Williams won't be the starter for long.
Behind the Steel Curtain is also reporting that the Steelers will be giving some of starting free safety Ryan Clark's snaps to rookie Shamarko Thomas, and if Thomas responds well, he'll take over the starting job.
At 19th in total offense, 10th in total defense, 29th in scoring and 23rd in points allowed, the Steelers have limped to their worst start since 1968. Both the running and passing games have been stalled by a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 15 times in four games and has thrown only five touchdowns to five interceptions.
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Their defense hasn't generated any turnovers and has only four sacks—three by linebacker LaMarr Woodley. It's safe to say nothing is going right for the Steelers.
On offense, the line is the biggest worry. Beachum, who has seen time at all five positions this year, is an upgrade over Adams, but only by a matter of degree.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Adams' overall grade on the line is minus-9.7. Beachum has also received negative grades for his play (minus-2.8), but he's been less of a liability in pass protection than Adams, necessitating the switch.
Beachum should give way to Brown, likely splitting snaps with him against the New York Jets in Week 6, before taking over the starting job in Week 7. Brown, too, is just a minor upgrade over Adams. He registered a PFF grade of minus-5.8 as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, including a minus-8.5 pass-blocking grade.
Unless Beachum and Brown show something they haven't before, the left tackle position is still a weakness. While not as weak as when the job was Adams', the state of the position cannot reassure Roethlisberger. The only hope is that the move helps boost the run game, which by default will take pressure off of the Steelers quarterback.
Stopping the run has been the Pittsburgh defense's biggest weakness, giving up an average of 122.8 yards per game on the ground. The defense has a combined 39 missed tackles on the year, with Clark and cornerback Ike Taylor each responsible for five. Among Pittsburgh's current starters with over 100 snaps on the year, only defensive linemen Steve McLendon, Hood and Heyward have no missed tackles this season.
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The move from Hood to Heyward is an interesting one, not unlike their shuffle at offensive tackle, in that it may not make a great deal of difference. It probably means that Heyward gets most of the defensive snaps at left defensive end with Hood spelling him on short-yardage situations. Heyward has graded out worse against the run than Hood, though he's an improvement in the pass rush.
More than simply moving players around, the Steelers needed to spend their bye week fine-tuning all of the areas in which they've been disappointing. They have spent the first four weeks of the season playing like shadows of their formerly dominant selves. Swapping out a left tackle and a defensive end won't solve all of their problems; however it does send an important message to the players that no job is safe.
Take Clark and Thomas, for example.
Last year, Clark was the Steelers' second-best defender after linebacker Lawrence Timmons. He led the team in tackles, with 102, gave up no touchdowns and allowed 65.5 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught, for just 143 total yards and 73 yards after the catch. Opposing quarterbacks targeting him had a 48.5 passer rating.
While Clark presently remains Pittsburgh's leading tackler, with 29 combined stops, he's struggling in both coverage and run defense. He's given up five receptions on eight targets, for 107 yards with 74 of those yards coming after the catch. Though he's yet to allow a touchdown, Clark has no passes defensed, and quarterbacks when throwing his way have compiled a passer rating of 106.3.
Through four games, Clark has already given up nearly as many receiving yards as he did through 16 games last year. He may be a veteran, but he's one on the decline. Instead of waiting until 2014 to promote Thomas to starter—the typical modus operandi for the Steelers, as they don't like to give defensive rookies significant playing time—he'll get the chance now. Clark simply isn't playing well enough.
Thomas has only played 64 defensive snaps thus far, allowing four of six passes thrown his way to be caught, for 33 yards and a touchdown. It hasn't been particularly impressive, but he hasn't had much playing time, either. The Steelers clearly think that with more snaps he can play better—or at least better than Clark.
This mentality needs to stay with the Steelers through the rest of the season. If disappointing players are leading to disappointing results, the players need to be pulled and replaced whenever possible, even with no other bye week on the schedule.
Maybe there's a "magic formula," a perfect combination of players that will lead to the Steelers turning their season around. Maybe there isn't. But roster complacency won't likely yield better results. They started with left tackle, defensive end and safety, but it doesn't have to end there.
And if the Steelers keep losing, it won't.
There's reason to believe that at least Pittsburgh's run-blocking will be better against the Jets. If their pass-rush and coverage also improves, then these moves were indeed the right ones. Regardless of what happens against the Jets, however, there was no way the Steelers could head into Week 6 without making at least a few changes to the depth chart.
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