Highlighting Pittsburgh Steelers' Biggest Offseason Challenges

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent INovember 29, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 28:  David DeCastro #66 and  Ben Roethlisberger #7 stand next to head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers after they failed to convert a two point attempt during the closing moments of their 22-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on November 28, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The offseason is months away, yet rumors have been already been swirling about potential moves that the Pittsburgh Steelers will make.

November football in Pittsburgh usually brings about discussions on division titles and playoff seeding. But that has not been the case this year.

A disappointing 0-4 start brought about questions regarding the front office, coaching staff and players. Fans and members of the media questioned the job status of Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and a number of veterans on the roster.

Rumors of big offseason changes swirled as the losses mounted, with the biggest coming from NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, who reported that Ben Roethlisberger wants the Steelers to explore trade options after the season.

Regardless of what happens with Roethlisberger, the Steelers organization will have plenty of challenges this offseason.


Front Office and Coaching Staff

There are high standards in Pittsburgh, so missing the playoffs in 2012 meant that the Steelers fell below expectations. This meant extra pressure on the front office and coaching staff to get the team back to competing for the AFC North title.

A poor start to the 2013 season added to this pressure. The Steelers virtually played themselves out of playoff contention with a 0-4 start. Any hopes at the postseason were likely eliminated following the loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik wrote earlier this season that GM Kevin Colbert must take the blame for the team’s personnel, but he has done enough to earn a pass. I agree. As I wrote last week, Colbert has proven to be a quality front office man when it comes to the draft and free agency.

Colbert will most certainly be given at least one more season in charge of Pittsburgh’s personnel given his track record of drafting players, re-signing top free agents and making shrewd moves in free agency.

As a result of his success, the Steelers have been to three Super Bowls—winning two of them—during Colbert’s tenure.

Mike Tomlin's job should be safe despite struggles in 2013.
Mike Tomlin's job should be safe despite struggles in 2013.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Mike Tomlin will be given the same leeway. He has guided the Steelers to two Super Bowl appearances and one championship in his seven seasons with the team. Pittsburgh has never had a losing season under Tomlin, though he will have an uphill battle to continue this streak this season.

Since the two men in charge are going nowhere, the Steelers may have to make a move elsewhere.

The coordinators will be the first place to look.

Vinnie Iyer of the Sporting News suggested that Tomlin should fire offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Haley has been the subject of a lot of criticism since coming to Pittsburgh in 2012, and it has only increased in 2013.

Over the first four games of the season, the Steelers averaged just over 17 points per game. Since then, they have averaged 24.3 points per game as a team with Ben Roethlisberger playing some of the best football of his career.

Source: ESPN.com
Source: ESPN.comChris G.

They have done so with a makeshift offensive line and limited weapons at the receiver position. Despite this, Roethlisberger has well over 3,000 yards passing with 21 touchdowns and Antonio Brown leads the league in receptions.

As long as the offense continues to improve and Roethlisberger has a positive relationship with his coordinator, Haley’s job will be safe.

The once-untouchable Dick LeBeau has been under pressure as well. The defense once again has struggled to pressure the quarterback and force turnovers.

More importantly, they have failed to get stops in critical situations.

Recently, CBS Pittsburgh’s Colin Dunlap questioned LeBeau’s future with the Steelers, citing the defense giving up 34 points or more in three of their losses as one of the reasons.

However, ESPN’s Scott Brown does not believe that LeBeau’s job should be in danger, saying that the personnel is the issue, not the coaching.

Tomlin has never questioned LeBeau, and he has earned enough respect in Pittsburgh for having top-ranked defenses nearly every season that he should be allowed to walk away on his own terms.

Pittsburgh's Defensive Rankings Under LeBeau
YearTotal DefenseRush DefensePassing DefensePoints Allowed
Pro Football Reference

As it stands now, I would anticipate that they will both return.

Instead, it could be some positional coaches that could feel the wrath of a losing season.


Salary Cap

Before the Steelers do anything in free agency next year, they will have to address their salary cap.

As is the case every year, the Steelers will be right up against the cap ceiling. They will have to make some moves to have some financial freedom to sign players.

According to Pro Football Talk, the Steelers already have over $125 million committed to their 2014 salary cap. They may have to make some difficult decisions on several high-priced veterans.

Cap Hits for 2014
Player Name2014 Cap Hit
Ben Roethlisberger$18.895 million
LaMarr Woodley$13.59 million
Lawrence Timmons$11.816 million
Troy Polamalu$10.887 million
Ike Taylor$10.454 million
Heath Miller$9.466 million
Pro Football Talk

Roethlisberger has the highest cap hit at $18.9 million, but with only two years remaining on his deal, he would be a prime candidate for a contract extension.

More challenging decisions will have to come on Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

With over $30 million committed to these three players in 2014, it is possible that they release at least one or two of them.

Miller figures to be the safest player on this list. He is their only legitimate threat at tight end on the roster. He is one of Roethlisberger’s favorite targets and is finally getting back into form after suffering an ACL tear last season.

Polamalu has never been a traditional player, but he has played near the line of scrimmage more this year than he ever has. It is almost like having an extra linebacker out on the field. As a special talent, he continues to freelance out on the field, but he has been burned more than ever before, including one time against the Ravens that cost the Steelers a touchdown.

However, I can envision the Steelers signing this Hall of Fame talent to one more contract extension before his career comes to an end.

That leaves Taylor as the player most likely to be on his way out.

Once one of the better cornerbacks in the league, Taylor has quickly faded. He has been shredded by opposing receivers in recent weeks. Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon had historic performances against Taylor. He can no longer be left on an island against the opponent’s No. 1 receivers.

Barring a significant pay cut, it will be time for the Steelers and Taylor to part ways.

The Steelers may also want to look at the contracts of Lawrence Timmons, who has an $11.8 million cap hit in 2014, and LaMarr Woodley with a cap hit of $13.59 million.

Woodley has been a popular name as a potential cap casualty given his lack of production and injury issues in recent years. Combined with Jason Worilds showing potential on the right side, could the Steelers move on from Woodley?

One issue that comes up would be the “dead” money from his contract, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette (subscription required) explains that this wouldn’t necessarily prevent the Steelers from releasing or trading him.

Unlike the mass release of veterans in recent years, I expect more extensions and restructures to free up cap space. They will believe they can compete next year and will not want to gut the roster without having adequate replacements in place.


Impending Free Agents

The Steelers do not have any “big-name” free agents, but they do have to make decisions on several players.

Emmanuel Sanders, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Ryan Clark and Jason Worilds are the key names to watch this offseason.

Expect Sanders to be allowed to walk unless he takes a very team-friendly deal. While he is putting up the best numbers of his career, he's only caught 57 percent of the passes thrown his way.

Emmanuel Sanders is likely to leave as a free agent after the season.
Emmanuel Sanders is likely to leave as a free agent after the season.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Sanders has had several critical drops throughout the season, including the two-point conversion attempt that could have tied the Steelers with the Ravens on Thursday. He isn’t very physical and has not been consistent enough to profile as a starter opposite Brown.

Pittsburgh could have had New England’s third-round draft choice after the Pats signed him to an offer sheet this offseason, but instead it elected to match. At the time it was the right decision because of the lack of receiving weapons, but the decision was made with only 2013 in mind.

Now the Steelers will likely allow him to leave and instead go with Markus Wheaton as the starter. Of course, they would be wise to re-sign Jerricho Cotchery as a stopgap player until Wheaton is ready.

The Steelers will also have to choose between Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood at defensive end. It would not be wise to allow both to leave, which would leave them very thin at defensive end.

Keisel is the better player, but he will be 36 years old next season and has had his fair share of injuries. At some point his body will break down. The Steelers do not need an aging body that is breaking down starting on their defensive line.

Instead, they should attempt to sign Hood to a cheap contract and start him until they can find a better option.

Of course, a better option could be to sign a mid-tier free agent from another team.

Source: ESPN.com
Source: ESPN.comChris G.

But because they rotate their defensive ends so much, the Steelers need quality depth at the position, so expect one of the two to return.

In the secondary, Ryan Clark is down to his final month a member of the Steelers defense. He has had a great career in Pittsburgh, but he's struggled this season. The Steelers need youth and speed in the secondary. Clark does not provide either.

The final tough decision they will have to make is at outside linebacker.

Jason Worilds was a disappointment over his first three seasons and was a virtual non-factor at right outside linebacker this year. However, since he has stepped in for Woodley, Worilds has shown something on the left side of the defense.

He has been a much better player at left outside linebacker, providing consistent pressure on the quarterback and picking up sacks. He had two sacks and a forced fumble against Joe Flacco on Thursday after pressuring the Cleveland Browns’ quarterbacks all day last week.

He should not command a large contract, but with big money invested in Woodley and a first-round draft pick in Jarvis Jones, it will be hard for the Steelers to commit more resources into the position.


Draft Focus

The beauty of failing to make the playoffs is that virtually every position can be upgraded. That means a ton of options in the draft.

Some of the top needs for the Steelers will be left tackle, wide receiver, tight end, nose tackle, inside linebacker and defensive back.

In other words, they could use upgrades at virtually every position.

Though the Steelers have three tackles in Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, they could certainly upgrade the position. Grabbing a top-flight left tackle would be a huge addition for the offensive line.

But with all of the draft picks invested in the line in recent years, they may shy away from that and instead add a weapon for Roethlisberger and the passing game.

If available, Mike Evans would provide Roethlisberger with a big receiving target.
If available, Mike Evans would provide Roethlisberger with a big receiving target.Bob Levey/Getty Images

It is amazing what Big Ben has been able to do with limited options this year. But the Steelers need to treat him like a franchise quarterback and surround him with top receiving weapons. A top-rated tight end or receiver would aid in the development of the offense and assist in the red-zone production.

Rather than invest an early pick on the position, they may decide to wait given their success on finding quality receivers later in the draft.

Instead, they could focus on rebuilding the defense.

For the defense, it all starts in the middle, and Steve McLendon did not adequately replace Casey Hampton. An elite nose tackle is essential for the success of the defense. Finding one would help everyone in the front seven.

If there isn’t one available, the Steelers may try to find an elite inside linebacker to play alongside Lawrence Timmons or continue to add to their defensive backfield after drafting Shamarko Thomas last year.

It is simply too early to tell what the Steelers will do in the draft, but they will have more than enough options. This team is in need of talent all over the roster.

The season may not be over, but at 5-7 the Steelers are closer to the end of their season than a playoff appearance.

A second straight missed postseason will make for an interesting offseason.


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