Like citizens and their taxes, every team eventually has to own up to its cap bill. The Pittsburgh Steelers are beginning to learn that the hard way.
Perennially among the NFL's best teams at drafting and cultivating talent, the Steelers are paying the price for their retention of said talent in 2014. They had to scramble and claw for every last cent of cap space before the beginning of the league year, eventually lopping of just enough to enter free agency with a couple of pennies to spend.
Of course, savings in the NFL typically come with a mass exodus of talent. Pittsburgh is no different. While stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller agreed to new long-term deals and Ike Taylor took a pay cut, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Ryan Clark and others are gone. Rather than working on retaining their own talent, the Steelers instead began finding cost-efficient ways to add from other rosters.
Former New Orleans Saints receiver Lance Moore replaces the departed Jerricho Cotchery. LeGarrette Blount will add some needed depth at running back behind Le'Veon Bell. Darrius Heyward-Bey, well...OK, I still don't really get that one, but the team is certainly hoping he can put it all together and be a contributor.
Nonetheless, the Steelers had room for just one big offseason signing and made a curious one: safety Mike Mitchell. The former Raider and Panther just one year ago could barely latch on with Carolina on a one-year deal. A career year later, and Mitchell is signed for five years at $5 million per season.
"I think in today's NFL it's about situational football and what offenses do, and how many receivers they have on the field,” coach Mike Tomlin told reporters in March. "Often times, we spend a lot of time in sub-package football, whether you are a 3-4 or a 4-3 [defense]. In today's NFL, most times you have five or six defensive backs on the field."
The signing was not egregious in a vacuum, but perhaps a sign of a very different Steelers franchise at the moment.
Pittsburgh, long a vessel of consistent excellence, missed the playoffs for the second straight season in 2013. It was the first time since the turn of the century the club had gone back-to-back campaigns without January football. Since 1972, only twice have the Steelers had a streak of three or more consecutive such seasons.
In 2013, the club was undone by a dreadful start. Pittsburgh started 0-4 and dropped to 2-6 before catching fire in the second half. With the No. 6 spot a cluster of mediocre teams heading into Week 17, the Steelers waited on bated breath down to the wire only to fall short at 8-8.
Now that the NFL has released its full schedule, we have a good idea of how prone the Steelers are to another early swoon. Here's a full look at their slate, along with some quick-hit analysis on what to expect in 2014.
|2014 Pittsburgh Steelers Regular-Season Schedule|
|1||Sept. 7||vs. Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sept. 11||at Baltimore Ravens||8:25 p.m.||CBS/NFL Network|
|3||Sept. 21||at Carolina Panthers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|4||Sept. 28||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|5||Oct. 5||at Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 12||at Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 20||vs. Houston Texans||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|8||Oct. 26||vs. Indianapolis Colts||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 2||vs. Baltimore Ravens||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|10||Nov. 9||at New York Jets||1 p.m.||CBS|
|11||Nov. 17||at Tennessee Titans||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|13||Nov. 30||vs. New Orleans Saints||1 p.m.||Fox|
|14||Dec. 7||at Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 14||at Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 21||vs. Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Dec. 28||vs. Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
Mike Tomlin and Co. certainly could have hoped for worse. In terms of their opponents' 2013 regular-season records, the Steelers are tied for the 23rd-hardest schedule in football, according to ESPN. That's certainly a stat that can be left up to interpretation considering the year-to-year variance of the NFL, but you'd certainly rather be the Steelers than the Raiders in April.
Or anytime really.
The AFC North as a whole is done a solid by playing the AFC South in their shared intraconference games. With the Colts standing out as the only team even remotely resembling a playoff outfit, that could be three wins right off the bat—and the Steelers play Indianapolis at home. Visiting Tennessee and Jacksonville was the best-case scenario. Baltimore and Cincinnati, on the other hand, have to hit the road for what should be an improved Houston team and Indianapolis.
Pittsburgh also lucks out a bit against the NFC South, hosting New Orleans and Tampa Bay while visiting Atlanta and Carolina. The Falcons are a massive positive regression team from their inexplicable 4-12 record, but the Panthers look far weaker at every position than they did in 2013. It's a trade-off Tomlin will probably take, though the Falcons are tough at home.
The Steelers' non-shared opponents are equally middling. While the Chiefs were the surprise team of 2013, their mass exodus of talent during the offseason makes them something like the AFC's answer to Carolina. Any time a team loses five players within an hour-and-a-half of free agency beginning, odds are it's losing some pretty major contributors. Kansas City won't regress to the worst team in football suddenly, but it's not likely to compete for the AFC's top seed, either.
Going on the road to face the Jets might be the very definition of a "just there" game. New York mildly improved its offense by signing Michael Vick, Eric Decker and Jacoby Ford, which could be the difference between a below-average unit and last season's train wreck. Given Rex Ryan's stellar work with the defense, the Jets could compete for a No. 6 seed if things break right.
Overall, though, this is a schedule that features exactly one team that could compete for a No. 1 seed: New Orleans. And the Saints' cap troubles this offseason in many ways mirror a process that started in 2013 for the Steelers.
The Steelers largely need to focus on taking care of business within their division. Their non-divisional games are middling at best. If they do anything less than split those contests, it's a bad sign for a core that has been on a downslope the past two seasons.
Somehow sweep Cincinnati, though, and a division crown isn't totally out of the question. The Bengals are among the northern foursome, bar none. They have elite young talent on both sides of the ball, and if it hadn't been for injuries to Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, they might have landed a first-round bye last year.
Instead came a third straight Wild Card Round exit. Andy Dalton comes into 2014 playing for a huge long-term contract and his reputation among the league's best young passers. By no accounts is Dalton a bad quarterback. In fact, he's arguably the best second-round quarterback in history through his first three seasons from a statistical standpoint.
But everyone in Cincinnati knows how special this team could be with a truly "elite" (gag) quarterback. The Steelers and Bengals split their series last season, which is likely an amenable agreement for both sides this time around.
Same goes for the Ravens, who may just tag off the home-and-home split with Pittsburgh for the rest of eternity. The faces and names continue to change, but the games largely stay the same between these two rivals—except for, you know, the whole tripping thing.
More pivotal than any individual matchup is merely getting off to a half-decent start. The Steelers looked ill-prepared and at times like the worst team in football during their 2-6 start. Even their late-season surge was a bit of fool's gold, with wins coming over Buffalo, Cleveland (twice), a floundering Lions team and Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers.
It would be a major stretch to consider this team a Super Bowl contender, but not so much to see it drop down to 6-10 or 5-11. How it plays the first few weeks of 2014 should help determine that trajectory. Start off well enough, and the Steelers could sneak in at a 9-7 clip or something similar. Pittsburgh just isn't fortified with the necessary steel (sorry) to ascend from another rut in 2014.
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