Changes the Steelers Must Make to Get Back into Contention Next Season

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVDecember 10, 2013

At 5-8 after Sunday's loss to the Miami Dolphins, the best the Pittsburgh Steelers can hope for is to end their season with an 8-8 record for a second straight year. This is not what they had planned. All of the anger and frustration at their disappointing finish last season seems not to have translated to actual on-field improvements.

Things will have to change this offseason. And those changes will likely be more sweeping and drastic than those from last year. Without them, things will only get worse and not better. And with the Cincinnati Bengals the AFC North's newest darling, the Baltimore Ravens coming off a Super Bowl win and the Cleveland Browns just a quarterback away from contention, the Steelers cannot afford to be left behind.

Here are some of the biggest changes the Steelers must make this offseason to avoid yet another 8-8—or worse—season.


Fire Todd Haley

This is more than just a convenient rallying cry—Todd Haley must go. More than just a scapegoat for the Steelers' two poor seasons, he's one of the major causes. Haley has altered an offensive scheme that was highly successful and molded it into one that is more closely aligned with his vision, and his vision doesn't best showcase the Steelers' strengths. His era needs to end after two years, his tenure deemed a failure.

The Haley Problem can be illustrated using many examples, but a good start is with the Steelers' most recent loss to the Dolphins. Against Miami's now-23rd-ranked run defense, the Steelers ran the ball just 21 times, compared to 39 pass attempts for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Even worse is that 15 of those rushes came in the first half, 10 belonging to rookie back Le'Veon Bell. 

Though the Steelers averaged a respectable 3.7 yards per carry in the first half and were down to Miami by just three points, they opted to run only six more times in the second half, with Bell getting five more carries. They ended the day with only 84 total rushing yards, with 61 for Bell, who averaged 4.1 yards per carry on the day.

And why did they abandon the run? Roethlisberger's answer: "No idea. Coach Haley's over there. You can ask him," according to NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala.

Though former Steelers coordinator Bruce Arians was criticized for a too-heavy reliance on the passing game, Roethlisberger has been put through his paces even more with Haley calling the plays. Of the 29 games in which Roethlisberger has thrown 40 or more passes, 11 have come in 2012 or 2013.

Roethlisberger isn't the type of quarterback that benefits from a heavy passing volume. The Steelers have 20 losses and nine wins when Roethlisberger passes that much. If Haley wants a high-volume pocket passer, he should have gone somewhere other than Pittsburgh to coach.

The truth is, Haley has done little to fix the sputtering run game. Last year was an anomaly—injuries mounted at the position, and the Steelers had no one to turn to as a true feature back. This year, they have Bell, who could easily have had his first 100-yard rushing day against Miami had he been given the proper workload.

Ben Roethlisberger, 40+ Pass Attempts Under Todd Haley
at Ravens442825720L, 22-20
vs. Lions452936740W, 37-27
at Patriots482840042L, 55-31
at Raiders452927512L, 21-18
at Vikings513638311L, 34-27
vs. Bears412640621L, 40-23
at Cowboys402433921L, 27-24
vs. Chargers422228531L, 34-24
at Titans402436311L, 26-23
at Raiders433638440L, 34-31
at Broncos402224521L, 31-19

The offensive line hasn't been conducive to a good run game, but there has also been no desire to just hand the ball to Bell and have him try to create room. According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh's line ranks 26th in run blocking. However, the Steelers rank 28th in rushing attempts per game, at 23.1. The line isn't being given many chances to improve in games.

What Haley has done is try to limit Roethlisberger's opportunities to improvise, effectively telling him not to do the one thing that he does best, the thing that has made him so successful in his professional career. Roethlisberger is passing more, all while throwing fewer of the types of passes he's most comfortable with. 

The Steelers have tried to mold their offense to fit Haley's scheme, and it's failed. The Steelers need to find a coordinator who will work with Roethlisberger, Bell and the pieces currently in place. That's the only way the offense will get back on track.


Be Smart About Free Agents and Veterans

The Steelers seem to love to let veterans remain on the roster and starting lineup long after their primes, opting to re-sign those who have been of service as a reward rather than opting to move on.

The Steelers' 2014 free-agent class is one that they'll have to make correct and consider decisions about, especially with more salary cap problems looming. Other expensive veterans whose contracts aren't about to expire also need the same close inspection.

Of Pittsburgh's 21 restricted and unrestricted 2014 free agents, the most notable names are safety Ryan Clark, receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, outside linebacker Jason Worilds, defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel and versatile backup defensive lineman Al Woods. 

Key Steelers 2014 Free Agents
FS Ryan ClarkUFA
DE Ziggy HoodUFA
DE Brett KeiselUFA
LB Jason WorildsUFA
WR Emmanuel SandersUFA
WR Jerricho CotcheryUFA
DL Al WoodsUFA

In a choose-one scenario, the Steelers should re-sign Worilds. In relief of LaMarr Woodley at the left linebacker position, he's been extremely impressive this year—so impressive, in fact, that when Woodley returned from his calf injury to play against the Dolphins, he was moved to right outside linebacker.

Worilds has eight sacks this year, including five in his last four games. Though the Steelers drafted Jarvis Jones in April and have Woodley under contract until 2017, Jones is still learning Dick LeBeau's defense, and Woodley has dealt with injuries on a yearly basis. Keeping Worilds is a no-brainer and should be a top priority. Keep in mind, however, this may not be possible, for reasons Dave Bryan of breaks down here.

At defensive end, the Steelers would be smart to not retain Keisel but give a new contract to Hood. While Hood is not the Steelers' best option, a lack of defensive line depth forces their hand to give the money to the younger player. It's not as though the Steelers will be able to draft a starter-ready defensive end in May, considering the Steelers rarely can successfully start a rookie on defense because of LeBeau's scheme.

Keisel is 35 years old and has been dealing with plantar fasciitis this year, an ailment that could linger well into 2014. Hood will be 27 years old in February and is improving. He'll be just fine paired up with Cameron Heyward next year.

The Steelers will also have to make decisions about Sanders and Cotchery. The Steelers nearly lost Sanders to an offer sheet from the New England Patriots in the 2013 offseason, so they know there's a market for his services. So far this year, he's made an impact for Pittsburgh, but not a major one. He has 58 catches on 100 targets, for 661 yards and five touchdowns. If they can get that production out of 2013 draft pick Markus Wheaton, they may have no trouble letting Sanders move on.

Cotchery, however, has enough value to re-sign at low cost for at least 2014. Though he'll be 32 years old next season, his veteran experience and high touchdown ratio make him worth keeping. Cotchery has only 41 receptions this year, but nine have been for scores. Giving him a roster spot alongside Antonio Brown, Wheaton and Derek Moye would be a smart move.

Biggest Steelers Salary Cap Hits, 2014
PlayerBase SalarySigning BonusOther BonusCap Hit
Roethlisberger$12.1 million0$6.795 million$18.895 million
Woodley$8 million$2.6 million$2.99 million$13.59 million
Taylor$7 million$1.812 million$3.129 million$11.942 million
Timmons$6.75 million$2 million$3.066 million$11.816 million
Polamalu$8.25 million$2.637 million0$10.887 million

Clark is the only wild card in this situation. On one hand, he's again one of Pittsburgh's top tacklers this year and is a true leader of the defense. On the other, he'll be turning 35 years old next October, and he's declining in both stopping the run and defending the pass.

But the Steelers don't have many options at safety beyond him—just Shamarko Thomas and Will Allen at present—and fellow safety Troy Polamalu may also not be on the roster for many more years. They may be forced to pay Clark, but it cannot be a five-year, $14 million deal like the one that's ending. Their best option would be hoping Clark will take a reasonable, two-year contract that the Steelers can get out of with little damage after one year.

To sign any of these free agents, the Steelers must clear salary cap space. Right now, they are projected to be around $14 million over the projected $122 million 2014 cap. Their most expensive players for the year include Roethlisberger, Woodley, Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who have cap hits ranging from $10.89 million to $18.89 million.

Woodley and Timmons are relatively young players who could benefit from a restructuring. Woodley could also be subject to a pay cut, considering his injury history, the presence of Jones and the rise of Worilds. But the Steelers have big decisions to make about Taylor, Polamalu and Roethlisberger.

Taylor and Polamalu are free agents in 2015, while Roethlisberger's contract is up in 2016. The latter has a good chance of an extension and restructure this offseason, but if the money isn't right, he may ask for a trade, according to unsubstantiated rumors. More than likely, Roethlisberger would be willing to take a hometown discount, preferring to remain in Pittsburgh rather than get an $18 or $20 million-per-year base salary.

Polamalu and Taylor, two defensive backs in their 30s, present financial problems for the Steelers in 2014. Both are set to be paid the kind of money they'd be worth in their respective primes, but they are past that point in their careers.

Taylor has been poor in coverage this year, giving up six touchdowns and proving unable of being effective in man-to-man situations. Polamalu is playing better in coverage than Taylor, but he has 10 missed tackles and five penalties this year, and his freelancing isn't paying off as it once did. 

Figuring out how to move on from one or both of Taylor and Polamalu will be one of the Steelers' biggest offseason challenges. Can they afford the dead money? Do they have enough talent and depth to replace one or both of them? They must answer these questions correctly to get them out of salary cap purgatory as well as improve their chances of having a good 2014 season.


Nail the Draft

The 2014 draft will be crucial to the Steelers' odds of success next season and beyond. They are on the verge of losing multiple important veterans over the next offseason or two, and they must have players in place to take on their starting jobs. They also need higher-quality depth.

With the salary cap situation likely prohibiting the Steelers from signing many outside free agents, the draft yet again will be their primary source of new talent. And this is where things get difficult.

The Steelers are without their third-round draft pick, having traded it to the Cleveland Browns in the 2013 draft to move up in the fourth round. They are also likely to lose a later-round pick as punishment for head coach Mike Tomlin's interference with Ravens returner Jacoby Jones on Thanksgiving night. The Steelers won't have a full complement of picks to work with this spring, which makes each selection carry that much more weight.

During Tomlin's tenure in Pittsburgh, which began in 2007, the Steelers haven't had a good record in the draft. Only 14 of the team's picks in that span are current starters (or are replacement starters because of injuries), and a remarkable few are still with the team. 

The draft isn't just about today. It's about the long term. And the Steelers' inability to draft well and consistently has helped put them in the mess they're in right now. Whether the Steelers overhaul their scouting methods, fire general manager Kevin Colbert or limit the influence of whoever is to blame for the Steelers' recent draft misses, they need to have a new plan for how they are going to approach the draft process.

Ultimately, the 2014 offseason is going to have a huge impact on what kind of team the Steelers will be going forward. It is their last best chance to turn around two disappointing years. The pressure is high. If they fail to make the necessary changes, the ripple effect will last longer than just two seasons.

The Steelers must dismantle their current offensive coaching staff. They must handle their free-agent and salary cap situations much better than in previous years, and the same goes for the draft. The Steelers have turned a dark corner since 2012, and if they don't turn back now, 8-8 might seem like an ideal record instead of a letdown.


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