An 8-8 season in Pittsburgh is never going to sit well with anyone—not with the players, coaches, front office, fans and especially not the Rooney’s. Considering it’s the team’s second straight .500 campaign, that puts the Steelers somewhere between panicked and DEFCON 2.
Pittsburgh, as a franchise, has made some crucial mistakes over the last few seasons that have led to the current predicament in which they stand. Fortunately for them, they’re all pretty correctable, or avoidable, this offseason.
If the Steelers want to get back to their winning ways, they’ll need to avoid some of these mistakes this offseason. Let’s take a look at five mistakes the Steelers can’t afford to make in 2014.
For the last few seasons, the Steelers have been one of the oldest teams in the league, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But that age finally reared its’ ugly head during the 2013 season.
Pittsburgh saw their worst defensive production (14th in points, 13th in yards) in over a decade. Four of the Steelers regular starters defensively were over the age of 30, including three in the secondary.
Over the last few seasons, the Steelers have made a concerted effort to get younger on the defensive side. They’ve parted ways with veterans and fan-favorites like James Harrison and Casey Hampton to save money and bring some youth into the fold. But so far, they haven’t seen the fruits of their labor.
Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel are set to be free agents, while Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are on the hot seat because of their sizable contracts. Needless to say, all four won’t be back. Although these guys have been big players for Pittsburgh in the past, they may be better served moving on at this point.
This is a big no-no for every NFL team. Look at the league’s top teams; they’ve all found success in draft.
The Steelers used to be one of those teams, but recently that hasn’t been the case. Pittsburgh hasn’t found immediate impact players, making their transition from an aging team to a youthful one very difficult. Guys in recent memory, like Ziggy Hood and Mike Adams, just haven't lived up to the expectations of the team.
In 2014, Pittsburgh needs to find players in the draft that can come in and make an immediate impact on this roster. Pending the free-agency-period transactions, the Steelers could have a lot of holes to fill, and they really can't afford to miss on picks.
The Steelers have been known for quite some time as a team that builds key pieces through the draft and fills out the roster with affordable free agents. But that wasn’t always the case.
In the inaugural free agency period, the Steelers made a major play and were awarded the services of pass-rusher Kevin Greene. Greene rewarded Pittsburgh with 35.5 sacks in three seasons and a Super Bowl appearance.
The Steelers have also added big-time free agents in the past like James Farrior, Dewayne Washington and Ryan Clark that have come in and made major impacts on the team. But for some reason, the Steelers have shied away from that in the recent past.
The 2014 offseason may be the perfect time for the Steelers to get back into the buyers' market. Pittsburgh has some glaring needs in the secondary, across the defensive line and in the backfield that could all be shored up with the help of a strong free-agent class.
As it stands now, a solid draft class may not be enough to get Pittsburgh over the threshold and into the playoffs, so a free-agent splash may be necessary if the Steelers want to compete in 2014.
The Steelers had a 2013 season filled with out-of-the-ordinary play. But one usually-strong area in particular struggled to step up: The run defense.
Pittsburgh was 21st in the league against the run this season, giving teams an average of 115.6 yards per game and 4.3 yards per rush in 2013. All of those numbers are down from last season in which the Steelers were second in football vs. opponents' ground games.
In fact, the Steelers haven't even been outside the top 10 teams against the run since 2003, when they were 12th.
One of the major reasons Pittsburgh struggled against the run was the loss of longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton. Hampton was a force in the interior of the Steelers D-line for 12 seasons before the team cut ties with the Pro Bowler in 2013. Steve McLendon is a nice player, but proved he's probably not the answer up the middle.
Whether it be through the draft or free agency, the Steelers need to add a space-eating nose tackle if they want to rebound in 2014. If not, we could be looking at another run defense in the bottom half of the league.
In 2013, my biggest complaint about the Steelers was their lack of consistency.
They weren't consistent on offense. They weren't consistent on defense. They weren't consistent in their preparation. And they certainly weren't consistent with their lineups.
Every team has somewhat of a plan heading into the season and, yes, most diverge from it at some point. But not week in and week out.
For instance, the Steelers spent most of the offseason employing a zone-blocking scheme to help fix their fading run game. But after a Week 1 loss to Tennessee in which the team ran for 31 yards, they scrapped that plan.
Thirty-one yards is an awful showing, but the team was running with back-ups in the backfield and played most of the game from behind. Week 1 is way too early to give up on a scheme you've worked on for months.
Pittsburgh needs to become a more consistent football team in all aspects if they want to be successful this year. Adding new pieces to the coaching staff can help with that, but at the end of the day, it has to come down to Mike Tomlin.