The Pittsburgh Steelers are still fighting for a playoff berth—one that will come only with a little help from a number of other AFC teams still in the hunt. But no matter how Week 17 plays out, the Steelers best-case finish to the season is an 8-8 record, the same as last year.
The steps the Steelers took in the 2013 offseason to avoid this disappointing fate didn't succeed, leading to another offseason of uncertainty and an even more pressing need to make the right decisions in order to turn things around.
Every team has a wish list of things they would like to do or have for the upcoming season. Few, if any, actually get everything they want. But in the spirit of the holidays, let's take a look at the things the Steelers want for 2014 and whether or not they'll get them.
The Steelers aren't used to being an 8-8 team in back-to-back years, considering all the success they've had over the past decade-plus. That success has included three Super Bowl appearance, two wins and only one season with a below-.500 record. Without question, more wins is what the Steelers want the most for their 2014 season.
However, that won't happen without change. Keeping things the same—the roster, the salary cap, the coaching, the approach to the draft—won't magically produce a different end result. There can be no more clinging to the laurels of past success when the AFC North and the NFL as a whole are starting to pass the Steelers by.
That being said, the Steelers aren't going to opt to not do the hard work it will take to produce more wins. In the NFL, winning truly is everything. And the Steelers want nothing more than to get out of the 8-8 doldrums and rack up double-digit victories in 2014.
For just the second time in his career, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will start all 16 games in a season. Keeping the oft-injured quarterback on the field in 2013 might have been the Steelers' biggest accomplishment. But the same cannot be said for other key players on the roster.
Which Steelers injury had the biggest impact on the season?
Of the 12 players currently on injured reserve, the season-ending injuries to center Maurkice Pouncey and his backup, Fernando Velasco, have been the most devastating. Linebacker Sean Spence hasn't played a single down since suffering a massive knee injury in the summer of his rookie 2012 season.
Inside linebacker Larry Foote's injury caused a shuffling of rookies that didn't benefit the Steelers, while outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley's recurrent calf injury cost him all or part of six games and even more in cash for the Steelers. Other players, such as wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, running back Le'Veon Bell and numerous members of the offensive line, have been on and off the field with various injuries.
Injuries are common in football, and it's an accepted part of the game. But teams that stay healthy—or at least have good depth—can find success and sustain it. The Steelers need a bit more luck on the injury front in 2014.
A Fix for the Run Game
It took 22 games for the Steelers to finally have a running back reach 100 rushing yards, with Le'Veon Bell rushing for 126 yards (and a touchdown) in the team's win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 16. The problem stemmed from the Steelers bringing on Jack Bicknell Jr. to coach the offensive line. Bicknell prefers outside zone blocking, something the Steelers had not been doing, and the transition was not seamless.
That transition was abandoned altogether when center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a knee injury that ended his season, and the run game languished without a blocking philosophy to support it. Before the Packers game, the Steelers as a whole reached or surpassed 100 yards rushing in only four games and had others with totals in the 30s and 40s.
It's a good sign that the Steelers have had over 100 yards rushing over the last two weeks. That's a good foundation to build upon, but they need to make a few changes to sustain it. One is getting rid of Bicknell, because the Steelers don't need outside zone blocking in order to run well. It also was a cause of Pouncey's injury.
The other is to change offensive coordinators. Todd Haley's approach to the run is inconsistent. Though he has helped Ben Roethlisberger in terms of asking him to throw the ball more quickly, thus helping him take fewer hits, Haley's two years in charge of the run game haven't been very productive.
While quick passing helps Roethlisberger, so does a dedication to the run game. And with a talent such as Bell finally emerging, they need to get the football into his hands more often. Consistency on offensive line would help too, but that can only happen with fewer injuries. Head coach Mike Tomlin's tendency to bench a running back after fumbling also needs to fall out of favor with the Steelers.
The Quick Development of Markus Wheaton
The Steelers drafted receiver Markus Wheaton in the third round in 2013 to provide more depth at the position and an eventual big-play replacement for Mike Wallace, who left in free agency. However, not counting the Packers game in which Wheaton came in as a replacement for Emmanuel Sanders, who suffered a knee injury, Wheaton hasn't gotten much playing time.
Stuck on the depth chart behind Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery, Wheaton had played only 124 total offensive snaps before Week 16, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He's been targeted only 12 times, with six catches for 64 yards, 38 yards after the catch, no scores and two drops.
While receiver is a difficult position for a rookie to master, it makes little sense that Wheaton has gotten so few opportunities in 2013. Perhaps he is still too raw, and his 50 percent catch rate also seems to smack of overthinking his playing assignments rather than simply securing the football. But Wheaton's development needs to accelerate in the 2014 offseason, as it looks like more will be asked of him going forward.
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Sanders, Cotchery and Plaxico Burress (on injured reserve) are all set to be unrestricted free agents in 2014, and only Cotchery has a good shot of getting a new contract from the Steelers. If that is the case, Wheaton will be thrust into the starting lineup out of necessity, which means he'll see more than 12 passes thrown his way and will need to catch more than half of his targets.
The Steelers need to focus time and resources on Wheaton's preparedness this offseason and get him ready to be a starter in their pass-heavy offense. Sanders has 65 catches for 714 yards and six touchdowns and is averaging 47.6 receiving yards per game. That's the kind of production they will need out of Wheaton next year. He needs to be able to do it.
A Solution to the LaMarr Woodley-Jason Worilds Situation
The Steelers gave outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley a six-year, $61.5 million contract extension in 2011, a reward for him seemingly being one of the better pass-rushers in the league. However, in the three seasons since that deal, Woodley has become an albatross on the roster and salary cap.
Woodley is owed approximately half of that as the team's second-highest paid player. But he hasn't done much to earn it, missing a total of 14 games (counting Sunday's against the Cleveland Browns) since signing the contract. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Dejan Kovacevic points out, Woodley's 18 sacks since the start of the 2011 season have been worth an expensive $500,000 apiece. The Steelers are not getting their money's worth with Woodley, and something has to give.
What complicates the Woodley problem even further is the emergence of Jason Worilds, who was moved to left outside linebacker when Woodley first fell injured earlier this season. Worilds leads the Steelers in sacks this year with eight, and he has 13 over the last two seasons. He's also about to become an unrestricted free agent.
Free agents with seasons like the one Worilds has had do not go unnoticed. They also don't go underpaid. But the Steelers, with their terrible salary-cap situation (yet again) cannot afford to pay Woodley his large salary while trying to put together a deal for Worilds. And the franchise tag might not be wise either, as it is expected to be around $11 million for 2014.
Who would you prefer to be on the Steelers roster in 2014?
Kovacevic notes that if Worilds knows Woodley is history—likely with a June 1 cut designation that reduces the cap hit on the Steelers from $14.17 million for 2014 to a staggered amount that is spread over 2014 and 2015—then Worilds would be more willing to take a new contract. He'd know he was a starter, and a deal could be worked out to pay Worilds what he's worth while also making it cap-friendly for Pittsburgh.
Without that assurance, though, Worilds would again be third on the depth chart, especially with first-round 2013 pick Jarvis Jones almost guaranteed a starting job next year thanks to his draft pedigree. Worilds would likely leave because he could start and get paid elsewhere.
Worilds is 25 years old and doesn't have the history of injury Woodley has. He'll also be less expensive to sign than it would be to pay Woodley. If the Steelers can get a new contract done with Worilds and cut Woodley with the June 1 designation, they'll be better for it in both the short term and long run. Keeping both is not an option.
Get Instantly Younger on Defensive Back
If there were a magic wand one could wave over cornerbacks and safeties to instantly make them eight years younger, the Steelers would be first in line to use it. Ryan Clark is turning 35 in October, Troy Polamalu turns 33 in April, and Ike Taylor turns 34 in May. All three are approaching the end of their careers, and if they all decide to pack it in at the same time, that could be trouble for the Steelers.
In particular, safety would be a troublesome position if the Steelers found themselves without both Clark and Polamalu in 2014. Shamarko Thomas, one of the team's two 2013 fourth-round draft picks, can play either free or strong safety, so he'd be a lock to be a starter. Will Allen or Robert Golden could take the other spot, with Allen having the edge in run-stopping but not in coverage.
But replacing such a high-impact core in the secondary will be a challenge, even if the Steelers have enough defensive backs on their roster to do it. The magic wand idea would be their best option, but that wand unfortunately does not exist.