Ranking Pittsburgh Steelers' 10 Biggest Developments in Season's 1st Half
While this hasn't been an easy season in Pittsburgh, there have been some bright spots that shouldn't be overlooked. These include Antonio Brown's breakout year and the Steelers win over the Ravens. Of course, there's been negatives as well, like Jarvis Jones' failure to make an impact and the historically bad loss to the Patriots.
The criteria involved in creating and ranking this list was quite simple, to be honest. I just thought about what developments from this tumultuous season stood out to me most as a fan, and which were the most surprising and/or had the greatest impact on the Steelers successes or failures.
Read on to find out where Brown, Jones and the other key developments of the Steelers' season wind up on this list.
Steelers Make London Debut
In Week 4, fans overseas were "treated" to a matchup between two 0-3 squads, the Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings. As per usual for the Steelers this year, when one unit decides to show up, the other takes it easy.
On this week, the Steelers' defense was the culprit, allowing touchdowns of over 60 yards to Adrian Peterson and Greg Jennings. The Steelers still had a chance to force overtime, but those hopes were crushed when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked on a 4th-and-goal play at the end of regulation.
Steelers' Inability to Beat Oakland Continues
The Steelers' loss to the Raiders this season marked the third time they fell to their old foe in the past five seasons. In the previous two outings, the Steelers entered as heavy favorites, but they entered this contest just like the Raiders, under .500.
In this contest, the Steelers allowed quarterback Terrelle Pryor to bust a 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. From that point, the Steelers trailed for the remainder of the game and countless mental lapses would prove to to be their undoing in the eventual 21-18 loss.
10. Old Guard Returning to Form (and Health)
Entering the season, the Steelers had a multitude of players returning from injury-riddled 2012 campaigns. The laundry list of names includes the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, David DeCastro, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley.
While the return of these players hasn’t affected the standings, Steelers fans can take solace in the fact that these players have managed to stay healthy and at least give them a shot in most games. In fact, those five have missed just three of a possible 45 starts this year.
Last season, those five players missed 29 of a possible 80 starts. Woodley, Polamalu and DeCastro in particular, looked hobbled in the games they were able to play. This year, they seem to have returned to form.
Woodley leads the Steelers with five sacks, already one more than he managed in 13 games last year. More importantly, he looks committed to keeping in shape, something that came into question during the offseason. And though Polamalu’s stat line doesn’t pop out the way it used to, he seems to be playing with the aggression and instinct that’s made him such a factor throughout his career.
Lastly, there’s DeCastro. The 2012 first-rounder missed most of his rookie year and looked lost when he was on the field. This year, he’s returned with a vengeance and has unquestionably been the team’s best offensive lineman. That’s not saying much, but it at least provides some semblance of hope for the future of the Steelers offensive line.
9. Injuries Take Their Toll Early
And just as some players return to health, others succumb to injuries. This season's wounded warriors rank ahead of their counterparts on this list because of the impact their absence has had on the 2013 season.
The mantra “next man up” is commonplace in the NFL in regards to injuries, but some losses are tougher to overcome than others. In their Week 1 loss to the Titans, the Steelers found this out firsthand, losing linebacker Larry Foote and center Maurkice Pouncey, both leaders of their respective units, for the season.
While sixth-round rookie Vince Williams and free agent pick-up Fernando Velasco have performed admirably in the wake of these losses, it’s evident in the Steelers play that there has been some dropoff.
Of course, the lackluster play of the offensive line can’t be attributed solely to the loss of Pouncey. The Steelers offensive line caught the injury bug hard this season and it’s forced the team to shuffle healthy bodies in and out of the rotation on a weekly basis. Hell, offensive tackle Levi Brown, who the team acquired in a mid-season trade with the Arizona Cardinals, didn’t even play a snap before finding his way onto injured reserve.
8. High Draft Picks, Low Contributions
The Steelers are often lauded for their ability to construct a successful team through the draft, but much of their dismal 3-6 record can be attributed to recent high draft picks not living up to their billing. In fact, the Steelers have stockpiled certain positions in recent drafts in hopes of bolstering those units, but instead they’ve been met with middling returns.
One need look no further than offensive tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams to confirm this startling trend. Both Gilbert and Adams were second-round picks (in ’11 & ’12, respectively) and have been in and out of the starting lineup since being drafted. While both are likely to start again this weekend, neither has cemented themselves as a fixture along the Steelers offensive line.
On the other side of the line, 2011 first-rounder Cameron Heyward finally found his way into the starting lineup. Unfortunately, it was at the expense of 2009 first-rounder Ziggy Hood. The Steelers were hopeful that Hood and Heyward could provide a formidable end duo like Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel did before them, but Hood can’t even supplant a 35-year-old Keisel.
7. Bell Showing Potential
Not all recent high-round draft picks have disappointed for the Steelers. In fact, Bell's been the most productive rookie back in recent Steelers history and that's what leads to his being ranked above his disappointing counterparts.
Mike Tomlin’s been searching for a true feature back since taking the reigns in Pittsburgh and he’s had varied success. Both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall contributed 1,000 yard seasons, but nagging injuries eventually stunted their productivity.
Enter Le’Veon Bell. The rookie was used to carrying the load at Michigan State, and was expected to become a workhorse in the steel city. While he was forced to miss the first three games of the season due to injury, Bell’s looked the part since returning to the field.
In six games back, Bell’s gained over 500 total yards and four rushing touchdowns, tied with Eddie Lacy and Giovani Bernard for most among rookies. Behind a less-than-stellar offensive line, Bell isn’t likely to crack the 1,000-yard plateau this season. Nonetheless, he’s run with the tenacity that prompted the Steelers to spend a second round pick on him and appears poised for a bright future.
6. Cotchery's Stunning Resurgence
When Jerricho Cotchery joined the Steelers in 2011, it was primarily to provide a veteran influence for a young receiving corps and to serve as a capable fourth option. In his first two seasons in black and yellow, Cotchery did just that, totaling 33 receptions for 442 yards and two touchdowns.
With the loss of Mike Wallace and the slower-than-expected development of rookie Markus Wheaton, it was evident that Cotchery would see an increased role in the Steelers’ passing game this season. However, Cotchery has far exceeded expectations.
Through nine games, Cotchery’s been more productive than in his previous two seasons combined, accumulating 455 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. The latter mark ties a career-high set by the veteran in 2006, six full seasons ago. Though it may be frightening to the superstitious, the number six pervades Cotchery's season and thus, that's where he lands on the list.
Cotchery’s performance thus far raises the question of how the Steelers will handle Emmanuel Sanders’ expiring contract in the offseason. The Steelers already flirted with the idea of letting Sanders sign with the New England Patriots and one could justifiably wonder if Cotchery’s play could prompt the Steelers to deem Sanders expendable.
5. The Patriots Debacle
Ah yes, the elephant in the room. I know that Steelers fans have been trying their damndest to put this game out of their heads since about midway through the fourth quarter, but in an article chronicling the 10 biggest developments of the Steelers season, this game deserves acknowledgement.
Coming off a tough 21-18 loss to the Oakland Raiders, Steelers fans knew the sledding wouldn’t get any easier in a road matchup with the New England Patriots. But nobody could foresee this.
See, this wasn’t just a bad loss, or a very bad loss; this was a loss of historic proportions. Tom Brady, a notorious Steelers-killer, lead a full-on assault in which his squad piled up 610 yards and 55 points. Both figures represent all-time worsts in the eight-decade history of the Steelers.
4. Brown Proving Worthy of Number One Role
When the Steelers opted to retain Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace, many were skeptical. Sure, Brown has more reliable hands and is a better route-runner than Wallace, but how much of his success could be attributed to the attention defenses had to pay to Wallace’s big-play capability?
Well, apparently the answer is very little. Brown has thrived in his first season as a primary target, collecting 67 receptions and 805 receiving yards. With seven games left to play, he’s already on the cusp of surpassing Wallace’s 2012 and has performed significantly better than his former teammate in 2013.
While some will continue to question whether or not Brown’s diminutive stature caps his upside as a number one receiver, he prefers to let his play do the talking. And so far, he’s answered his doubters with aplomb.
3. Jones Fails to Impress
Jarvis Jones’ play to date, has to rank above some other significant developments on this list simply due to the sheer surprise of it. While many anticipated Bell would flourish in the NFL or the Patriots would outclass the Steelers, few could’ve predicted Jones’ struggles.
When the Steelers selected Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, many were quick to anoint him as the heir apparent to James Harrison, and for good reason. The Georgia product tallied 14.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles in his last collegiate season, very Harrison-esque statistics.
Entering the season as a starter, Jones was expected to learn on the fly and rely on his athletic ability and pass-rushing prowess in the interim. But after four unremarkable starts, the Steelers opted to insert Jason Worilds into the starting lineup.
It’s alarming that the Steelers would put their faith in a player who’s never had more than five sacks in a season, but seeing as Jones notched the first of his career in Week 10, it’s tough to fault them for the decision.
2. Steelers Topple Ravens
If any game this season brought back memories of better days for Steelers Nation, it was their team’s Week 7 tilt with the hated Baltimore Ravens. Long thought of as the best rivalry in the NFL, anticipation for this game was underwhelming as neither team was playing to their pedigree. Nonetheless, this contest lived up to the lofty standards set by its predecessors.
The game had everything fans have come to expect from the rivalry, field goals aplenty, sacks in abundance and a thrilling finale. After a 73-yard touchdown drive by the Ravens knotted the game up at 16, the Steelers were faced with a familiar situation: two minutes and a purple-clad army stood between them and victory.
After Emmanuel Sanders’ electric kick return and two key receptions by Antonio Brown, the Steelers turned to kicker Shaun Suisham to seal the deal. And seal it he did. The ever-reliable kicker nailed a 42-yard field goal and gave the Steelers what may prove to be their most satisfying victory of the year, and that's what earns it the number two spot on this list.
1. Big Ben Reaffirms His Allegiance to the Steel City
When you root for a 3-6 football team, good news is at a premium. But Steelers fans got a much-needed dose of it amidst the trade rumors surrounding their team’s franchise quarterback.
When it comes to wanting to go somewhere else or anything like that, that's completely unacceptable. It's one of the most B.S. stories I've ever heard. I'm not quitting, and that means in more ways than one. I'm not quitting on anything, this season, this team, these fans. I'm going to give it everything I have. This is home.
Admittedly, nothing is static in today’s NFL and Roethlisberger’s sentiment only goes so far. After all, who foresaw Peyton Manning the Bronco or Brett Favre the Jet? Nonetheless, it’s just difficult to picture Roethlisberger in another uniform.
Roethlisberger’s ability to make something out of nothing and to play through pain embodies “Steelers football” and it’s what endeared him to Steelers fans. And, though this season could end the streak, let’s recall that Roethlisberger’s yet to lead a losing team in his career.
The Steelers and Roethlisberger just seem like a perfect marriage. It’s tough to see either attaining the same level of consistent success without one another and that's why Pittsburgh's first priority takes the top spot on this list.