6 Pittsburgh Steelers Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2014
Once one of the most talented teams in the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers have seen a decline in their personnel in recent years. The failure to replace aging veterans with quality young talent has resulted in mediocrity for two straight seasons.
As these veterans have moved on from the Steelers, an emphasis has been placed on the younger members on the roster. Not only are they expected to fill the void, but they are going to be counted on to get the Steelers back into the playoffs and Super Bowl contention.
A series of strong drafts have loaded the Steelers with plenty of talented players that are just waiting to tap into their potential. All they need now is an opportunity to get on the field so they can establish the foundation for not only the present, but for the future of this franchise.
Here are five members of the Steelers that are poised for a breakout season in 2014.
Cortez Allen, CB
Cortez Allen was identified prior to the start of the 2013 season as a potential breakout player. He was coming off an impressive second season in which he recorded 10 passes defended, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in 15 games played and just three starts.
Between his production and combination of size and speed, Allen had everything the Steelers could ask for in a cornerback. But despite his potential, he had a rather underwhelming third season, registering just two interceptions in eight starts.
Allen’s problems early in the season resulted in his demotion to the third cornerback role. While this could get many players down, he would recover nicely and finish the season strong while earning a positive grade in coverage from Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus. More importantly, he showed enough growth that the Steelers can feel confident in his abilities moving forward into 2014.
Now in his fourth season, Allen is expected to be more than a second cornerback. He will need to match up against the opponent’s top receiver each week and assume the role as the top cornerback in Pittsburgh. Once he settles into his role, Allen has the potential for a big season in pass coverage.
David DeCastro, OG
In a rather interesting article from Adam Schein of NFL.com, David DeCastro was identified as a player who must step up in 2014. Here is what Schein had to say:
Everyone once called DeCastro -- a steady, sturdy offensive guard from Stanford -- one of the safest picks of the 2012 NFL Draft. Well, a knee injury claimed his first season and poor play marred 2013.
Pittsburgh hired O-line guru Mike Munchak this offseason. DeCastro must live up to the billing.
According to Pro Football Focus, DeCastro only allowed two sacks last season and earned a grade of 11.8, including a grade of 8.1 as a run-blocker (h/t Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review). Even though he graded below Ramon Foster, anyone that watched the Steelers would have identified DeCastro as their top lineman.
That is not to say that he can’t get better. One reason the Steelers selected him in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft is that he has All-Pro potential—and that is what they should expect from their young guard.
After missing most of his rookie year with a knee injury, DeCastro began to flash his potential in his second season—his first as the established starter at right guard. Next season will basically represent his second as a full-time starter, and with another year under his belt, he is poised for his best season yet.
Andy Benoit of MMQB listed DeCastro on his 2014 All-Emerge Team:
This is another player who might not be eligible to “emerge” in the technical sense. Most fans know DeCastro; he entered the league two years ago as just the seventh true guard in 14 years to be taken in the first round. But he was quickly forgotten after his rookie season was all but lost to injury. Last season, a healthy DeCastro was up and down, but some of the ups were astoundingly high (his performance in Week 7 against the Ravens was the most dominant of any guard’s in 2013, save for Andrew Whitworth’s debut inside against the Chargers in Week 13) and his downs became fewer and less frequent. Given the paucity of quality guards in the league right now, DeCastro is just one or two steps away from pushing for All-Pro honors.
DeCastro may have already broken out in the eyes of Steelers fans, but he has the chance to explode onto the national scene now that he is under the tutelage of Mike Munchak. His combination of size, speed and football IQ make him a perfect candidate to develop into one of the most dominant guards in the entire league.
Cameron Heyward, DE
Cameron Heyward may seem like an odd name on this list, but it has to be remembered that he does not even have a full season of starting experience.
Last season was a bit of a breakout year for Heyward, as he was finally able to leapfrog Ziggy Hood in the starting lineup. Once he locked down a starting job, Heyward did not look back.
At 6’5” and 288 pounds, Heyward has an unbelievable combination of size and power that can allow him to dominate from the 5-technique defensive end position.
Heyward had an impressive 59 tackles, five sacks and seven passes defended. That is even more impressive considering the defensive end position is not expected to put up big statistics in the Steelers’ system.
His efforts earned him an 11.3 rating from Pro Football Focus, which was the second best on defense (h/t Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review). Heyward could produce even more in 2014.
Dick LeBeau will continue to evolve his defense and find new ways to generate pressure. That should mean that Heyward will have more opportunities to not only get to the quarterback by collapsing the pocket, but by rushing off of the edge as well.
As the veteran defensive end on the line, Heyward will have an increased role and more opportunities to make plays. He was already one of the best defensive players on the team last season and should be even better this year, as he enters the season as the starter.
Markus Wheaton, WR
Anytime a team loses two of its top three receiving targets in one offseason, someone will need to step to the plate and make up for the lost production.
In Pittsburgh, some of that attention will go toward free-agent signing Lance Moore. Even more will have high hopes for the 6’4” rookie, Martavis Bryant. But regardless of how much these two contribute to the offense, there will be no receiver more important than Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton was drafted in the third round last season and was a non-factor as a rookie. He only had six receptions for 64 yards and lost a lot of playing time due to injuries.
Now in his second season, Wheaton will need to go from the shadows into the spotlight, as he will be expected to assume the No. 2 wide receiver spot opposite Antonio Brown. As seen in the video above, former quarterback Charlie Batch feels good with what Wheaton can do in place of Sanders and believes that he can have a Mike Wallace-like impact.
Defenses will focus their attention on Brown after his outstanding season in 2013, while the veteran presence of Moore and Heath Miller will draw attention in the middle of the field. That leaves Wheaton with the chance to produce big numbers on the outside.
Wheaton has blazing speed and should pose more of a vertical threat than Emmanuel Sanders did last season. Beyond his pure physical skills, he will have a much better understanding of the offense in his second season and will play a vital role in the success of the offense.
Jarvis Jones, OLB
There are few players more important to the success of the 2014 Steelers than Jarvis Jones. Pass-rushers are a premium in the NFL, and the Steelers do not have any studs at the position right now. That is what Jones needs to become.
As a rookie, Jones earned a starting job but had a very disappointing season. He finished with 40 tackles and just one sack. Beyond his lack of production, he looked overmatched at times and showed that he had to develop technique and get stronger.
So far, the offseason has been good to Jones. He told Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he feels much more comfortable already.
It's not night and day, but it's a whole lot better, man. My instincts are a whole lot better. I'm not out there second-guessing myself. I can line myself up. This system's hard, man. Anybody who plays in this system is going to tell you it's hard.
As though having one year in the system wasn’t enough, Jones got an added boost from a new addition to the coaching staff—Joey Porter.
He's [Porter] got the mindset of a baller. We're trying to get hip to that. He's really put an emphasis on learning how to play this system, how to use the right technique, how to line up with my feet and hands. That's what's really important right now.
Playing outside linebacker for the Steelers is tough for a rookie—that was evident last season. But a year of experience can make a huge difference in the development of a player, and there is no reason to believe that Jones won’t take a major step in his second season to become the premiere pass-rusher on the Steelers.
Le'Veon Bell, RB
After the 2013 season ended, team president Art Rooney II spoke with the media and singled out Le’Veon Bell, saying that he “looks to be the kind of player who can be a big contributor for us,” per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Bell improved over the second half of his rookie season and finished the year with 860 rushing yards, 399 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. It was an impressive season, but one that he must improve upon.
With an average of just 3.5 yards per carry, Bell has plenty of room to get better carrying the ball. A lot of this comes with comfort in the offense and determining when to be patient as running lanes develop versus when he has to create his own.
At 6’1” and 244 pounds, Bell needs to use his size to move the pile when there is little room to run, but he should utilize his quick feet to bounce it to the outside when he has the chance for a big run around the edge.
Pittsburgh’s offense will look to take a balanced approach this year with the addition of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer to the backfield. Hiring Mike Munchak as offensive line coach should only help the ground game as well.
Even though the addition of new weapons may take some opportunities away from Bell, it does signify a philosophical focus for the offense. The Steelers appear as though they want to run the ball more effectively.
Running the football can be a mindset, and having an offensive line and an offensive coordinator that believes they can run the ball whenever they want is half the battle. This can only mean good things for the second-year running back, as he could establish himself as an elite option for Pittsburgh’s offense.
All stats and roster information courtesy of Steelers.com.