Pittsburgh Steelers: State of the Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason
The Pittsburgh Steelers will enter the 2014 offseason as a team meddling in mediocrity. Change will be necessary if they want to get back into playoff contention.
Apparently, the Steelers did not make enough changes last season coming off of an 8-8 record. The result was more of the same—another eight-win season.
Missed playoff appearances are always a disappointment for the Steelers, so do not expect them to stand pat. General manager Kevin Colbert will have to make some shrewd moves in free agency, particularly when dealing with his own players.
Last season, the Steelers got burned by not keeping Keenan Lewis, and Colbert will not want to have a repeat season. He and the rest of the Steelers brass will have several difficult decisions to make between keeping longtime established veterans or going with young players with upside.
But there is hope moving forward. Steelers president Art Rooney II told Missi Matthews and Bob Labriola of Steelers.com the he feels good about the team moving forward into 2014:
I certainly liked the way we finished. As far as I’m concerned, we should be in the playoffs. On the other side of it, we made our bed. Unfortunately, we got off to a slow start. I liked the way we finished, I liked the fact we got better as the season went on, which is what you want. You want a team that’s playing its best at the end. I think for the most part that’s what we did, and that leaves me excited for next season already. We’re looking forward to getting started on preparing for next year.
There will be plenty of work to do from clearing cap room to handling their own free agents. With the lack of depth across the board, the Steelers will have to reach out into the free-agent market to plug holes as well as have a successful draft.
As the Steelers head into the 2014 offseason, here is a breakdown of the state of the franchise and what you can look forward to in the coming months.
2013 Season in Review
First Quarter (Record: 0-4)
The first quarter of the 2013 season was a disaster. Ben Roethlisberger was a turnover machine, and the Steelers couldn’t win a game—literally.
Roethlisberger turned the ball over eight times and was sacked 15 times as the Steelers got off to a 0-4 start while being outscored 110-69. At this point of the season, they were one of the, if not the worst team in the league.
They had already been missing Le’Veon Bell with a foot injury, but they really got hit hard losing Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote for the year in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Second Quarter (Record: 2-2)
The win against the Ravens was particularly huge since it was against a divisional opponent and helped get them back in the race for the AFC North crown.
A win in Oakland and the Steelers would have had a ton of momentum heading into New England. Instead, Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and was sacked five times while Terrelle Pryor scored on a 93-yard run on the opening play of the game.
Two Shaun Suisham missed field goals helped seal a 21-18 loss.
That loss wasn’t nearly as embarrassing as what came next. The Patriots trounced the Steelers, 55-31. The 55 points and 610 yards allowed were both the most ever allowed by Pittsburgh. Tom Brady tossed four touchdowns as he continued to own the Steelers.
Third Quarter (Record: 3-1)
If the loss to New England was the low point of the season, the next three games were high points. With rumors running wild from NFL.com's Ian Rapoport before the game against the Buffalo Bills that Roethlisberger wanted out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers had one of their best games of the year.
The Steelers dominated the Bills and carried this momentum to the following week, in which Roethlisberger was outstanding with 367 yards and four touchdowns in a win against the Detroit Lions. The offense was finally finding its groove.
After an easy win against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers traveled to Baltimore for a Thursday night showdown with the Ravens.
It was a classic Steelers-Ravens game, but they would fall, 22-20. The loss appeared to put them out of the playoff race, but that was overshadowed by Bell getting knocked out at the goal line and Mike Tomlin’s sideline shuffle.
Fourth Quarter (Record: 3-1)
In what appeared to be a must-win game, the Steelers fell to the Miami Dolphins at a cold, snowy Heinz Field, 34-28. They nearly pulled it out on the final play when the Steelers did their backyard football impression to try to win the game.
Antonio Brown ended up with the ball after multiple laterals—including one to Marcus Gilbert—before breaking free and reaching the end zone. The score would not count because he barely stepped out of bounds at the Miami 12-yard line.
Pittsburgh would not quit, winning its remaining three games, including a wild game in Green Bay. This put it in position to make the playoffs heading into the late game during Week 17.
A San Diego loss would have put the Steelers in the postseason as the sixth seed, but it was not meant to be and they had an early end to their season for the second straight year.
Record: 8-8 (2nd in AFC North)
Offense: 12th Passing, 27th Rushing, 20th Total, 16th Scoring
Defense: 9th Passing, 21st Rushing, 13th Total, 14th Scoring
Offensive Coaching Staff
Early in the season, there was plenty of discussion regarding the coaching staff, particularly when it came to offensive coordinator Todd Haley:
Marc Sessler of NFL.com added to the Ian Rapoport report that Roethlisberger was not happy with the offensive coaching staff.
This would lead to speculation that there could be a massive overhaul of the staff. While that didn’t happen, there were a couple of moving pieces.
Less than a week after the season ended, a press release on Steelers.com had a statement from head coach Mike Tomlin that he “decided to go in a different direction” with the offensive line coach.
Saxon has played or coached in the NFL for 22 seasons and has helped coach some terrific running backs over the years. While working with the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings, he has coached Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown, Priest Holmes, Tony Richardson, Larry Johnson and Adrian Peterson.
The Steelers can hope that Saxon can use his experience working with great running backs to help guide Bell to a 1,000-yard rushing season and a Pro Bowl berth.
But the big hire of the year was Munchak. The former Tennessee Titans head coach. ESPN.com’s Scott Brown called the hiring “a coup for the Steelers.” It is hard to disagree with him.
Munchak is a Hall of Fame guard who has coached Tennessee’s offensive line from 1997 to 2010. During this time, four linemen made the Pro Bowl 10 times and five different running backs had 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Munchak has experience teaching the outside-zone blocking scheme, which the Steelers failed to implement last season. Expect him to use his vast knowledge and experience to teach the scheme this season. He has plenty of untapped potential to work with as the Steelers have four linemen drafted in the first two rounds on the roster.
The biggest project for Munchak will be to develop Mike Adams. He was eventually benched after an extremely disappointing second season.
Defensive Coaching Staff
More than ever, people began to question whether it was time for Dick LeBeau to move on and turn over the defense to Keith Butler. However, barring any late changes, the defensive staff will remain in place.
There was talk that Whisenhunt would hire Butler as his defensive coordinator in Tennessee. Given how long he has waited for a defensive coordinator job, it seemed like this would be the year that Butler would go.
That was not the case as reported by Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Butler will remain in Pittsburgh for another season as the linebacker coach.
With the staff in place, they will have a lot of work to do to rebuild a unit on the decline.
The biggest challenge will be to find young talent to take over for aging veterans as well as develop Jarvis Jones into the dominant pass-rusher they expected when they drafted him.
They will also need continue to tweak their defensive philosophy.
According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh's defense was on the field for 1,070 snaps last season. After analyzing these numbers, it was determined that LeBeau had an extra defensive back on the field for a majority of the time in 2013.
Defensive linemen played 2,607 snaps, linebackers 3,757 snaps and defensive backs 5,413 snaps. How does that translate to personnel? There were an average of 2.44 defensive linemen, 3.51 linebackers and 5.06 defensive backs on the field per defensive snap.
This puts an emphasis on developing more defensive backs and finding edge-rushers and linemen who can disrupt in passing situations. It is worth noting that these numbers do not tell the entire story since Troy Polamalu played as a hybrid linebacker this season.
Another factor that the defensive coaches must consider is the role of the nose tackle. Starter Steve McLendon played only 33 percent of the defensive snaps. Was that because he was not effective or because the position is not as important in their new defensive philosophy?
As with most years, the Steelers will have some work to do to get under the salary cap. According to Joel Corry of CBSSports.com, the Steelers are expected to be about $10 million over the anticipated $126.3 million salary cap.
Over the Cap has the salary breakdowns for 2014. Three of these players are in the final year of their respective deals.
Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Heath Miller combine for over $32 million in cap room. All three will be candidates for contract extensions or pay reductions, and if an agreement cannot be reached, they could be released.
Of course, the largest cap hit belongs to Roethlisberger. He counts nearly $19 million against the 2014 cap and may be up for a contract extension. However, with two years left on his deal, there is no urgency.
Roethlisberger signed his last extension with two years remaining on his deal, but cap considerations may prevent that from happening this offseason. Keep an eye on this story.
Another interesting story to follow will be what the Steelers do with LaMarr Woodley. As explained by Chris Burke of SI.com, releasing Woodley is going to result in a lot of dead money.
If the Steelers release Woodley, he will count $14,170,000 against the cap. Even as a post-June 1, it would push $8.58 million in dead money into 2015. That makes it a difficult move to make.
One of the easier moves, though, will be the release of Levi Brown. He will save the Steelers $6.25 million against the cap with no dead money.
The good news is that the Steelers do not have the same type of issues that they had in previous years and should not have many issues getting under the cap for 2014.
Impending Free Agents
2014 Free-Agent List
Running Backs: Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling
Wide Receivers: Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress
Tight Ends: David Johnson, Michael Palmer
Offensive Linemen: Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Guy Whimper, Eric Olsen (exclusive rights)
Defensive Linemen: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Al Woods
Linebackers: Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester, Jamaal Westerman
Defensive Backs: Ryan Clark, Will Allen
Specialists: Greg Warren, Mat McBriar
Entering the offseason, the Steelers have 21 unrestricted free agents and one exclusive rights free agent. Only six of these players are starters, including long snapper Greg Warren.
Jason Worilds and Emmanuel Sanders will garner the most interest on the free-agent market.
Worilds had largely been a disappointment through his first three-and-a-half years of play with 11 total sacks. Over his last eight games played, he had seven.
The second half of last season should raise his stock as he finally began to show that he could be a complete linebacker. In addition to his seven sacks, he had 44 tackles during this stretch. However, besides taking so long to develop, the knock on Worilds has been his health.
In four years, he only has 21 starts and has missed seven games, including the season finale this year. With Woodley already giving the Steelers problems with injuries, they will have to proceed with caution if they want to sign Worilds to a long-term deal.
It is worth noting that Worilds was the only player Art Rooney mentioned by name in a conference call, via Steelers.com, with fans when answering who was the top free agent on the team to re-sign.
ESPN.com’s Scott Brown reported that Worilds is open to staying with the Steelers assuming he can remain a starter.
Sanders signed an offer sheet with the New England Patriots last season but was ultimately kept by the Steelers.
Despite being promoted to a starter, he still put up No. 3 receiver numbers—albeit good No. 3 numbers—with 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns.
Veterans Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark may have played their last down in Pittsburgh, though Keisel could find himself back starting if he comes back for the veteran minimum. This would make sense if Ziggy Hood leaves.
Hood is a dependable player with 16 games played in each of his five seasons in the league. However, he has not been particularly productive and has disappointed as a first-round draft pick. He may elect to go to a team that runs a 4-3 defense in which he would be a better fit.
Jerricho Cotchery, Jonathan Dwyer, Fernando Velasco, Al Woods and Will Allen should all get strong looks as they are valuable backups. Warren remains dependable and would be worth keeping.
Beyond these players, the Steelers would not be losing much and could find upgrades either in free agency or through the draft. This team is coming off of a second straight eight-win season and needs to improve the roster. If it keeps the same players on the team, it can expect more of the same results.
Current Roster Analysis
Pittsburgh’s roster is not as strong as it had been in previous years, but there are some key players in place. The offensive side of the ball appears to be on the upswing, while the defense needs some work.
On offense, the Steelers will be a threat as long as Roethlisberger is under center. He looked very comfortable in the no-huddle offense and will use the offseason to perfect this scheme with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
He has three excellent weapons to work with in Brown, Miller and Bell.
Brown was outstanding in 2014, proving that he not only could be a No. 1 receiver, but also one of the best in the game. He earned a Pro Bowl berth and was named second-team Associated Press All-Pro after catching 110 balls for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns.
Miller came back from a torn ACL, and while he only found the end zone once, he still managed to put up 593 yards on 58 receptions. Meanwhile, Bell began to develop into a very good all-around back as the season progressed. He finished with 860 rushing yards, 399 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
With Pouncey returning to the lineup, David DeCastro ready to take the next step to becoming an All-Pro and Munchak in place to develop the young tackles, the offensive line could finally develop into a strength.
The biggest areas of need will be adding quality depth along the offensive line so they can avoid having to plug players such as Guy Whimper and Cody Wallace into the lineup when injuries occur. They could also use an upgrade at receiver to start opposite of Brown.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers lack playmakers with Polamalu showing the signs of aging and Woodley remaining on the sidelines with injuries.
Cameron Heyward looks like he can be a star at defensive end and was arguably the best defensive player last season. Besides him, no young player truly stepped up.
Steve McLendon and Cortez Allen were disappointments as starters for the first time, but they can improve with experience as can Jarvis Jones, who only had one sack as a rookie.
The secondary needs an infusion of youth with three 2013 starters over 30 years old. Polamalu may be gone in a year, and Taylor and Clark may both be gone this season. Shamarko Thomas and Allen are the only two young players in the secondary who have the look of developing into starters.
Lawrence Timmons continues to be one of the top defensive players on the team, but the Steelers lack a dependable option next to him. Foote missed last season with a biceps injury, and Vince Williams flashed some as a rookie, but he has a long way to go.
With Keisel and Hood both free agents, the Steelers have no proven starters besides Heyward signed beyond 2013. This could pose problems moving forward.
Depth is needed at virtually every position on defense, and besides Timmons and Heyward, every position has room for improvement.
Pittsburgh is set a kicker with Suisham and at long snapper with Warren. McBriar was its best punter last season, but that isn’t saying much. Expect another competition in training camp this year.
2014 Draft Preview
Top Needs: Cornerback, Safety, Wide Receiver
When it comes to the draft, the Steelers could go in virtually any direction. The roster is in need of talent and playmakers at virtually every position. It is hard to rule any position out when it comes to the draft.
It is relatively safe to say that the Steelers will avoid taking a quarterback in the first round as well as a running back. Roethlisberger and Bell have those positions secure for the foreseeable future. With so many high draft picks invested in the offensive line, I’d be surprised to see a lineman selected in the first as well. The only way this happens is if Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson falls to the 15th draft slot.
The secondary will be one of the top priorities in the draft. Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard—a player who will surely interest the Steelers—are two first-round prospects at cornerback who will be on Pittsburgh’s radar. Bradley Roby, Kyle Fuller, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Pierre Desir are all names to consider outside of the first.
If they go safety, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor are the top two available. Both have good size and speed for the position. They can play near the line or drop in coverage and have potential to start as rookies. Ed Reynolds, Tre Boston and Jonathan Dowling are potential selections later in the draft.
Of course, finding a new weapon for Roethlisberger will be very tempting as well. In my first mock draft, I had the Steelers selecting Mike Evans. He is one of the big-target options the Steelers will have in the draft.
Kelvin Benjamin, Allen Robinson, Davante Adams and Devin Street are all tall options, but they could stick with what has been working with the shorter receivers who are strong route-runners. Marqise Lee, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Robert Herron all meet this criteria.
Those three positions are just the top needs for the Steelers. Of course, they will not shy away from adding talent at either linebacker position. C.J. Mosley, Kyle Van Noy, Chris Borland and Dee Ford are just a few names that would provide nice upgrades.
On the defensive line, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Ra'Shede Hageman are just a few potential targets who could boost the strength up front.
The bottom line is that the Steelers need talent across the board. More than ever they need to draft the best available player and not draft for need.