6 Biggest Takeaways from the Pittsburgh Steelers OTAs
It is hard to imagine that the NFL regular season is less than 100 days away. Even as it’s been a quiet offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the time is just flying by. Right now, Pittsburgh is smack dab in the middle of its second dose of OTAs, and mandatory training camp is just around the corner.
Last year was a season to forget for Steelers’ fans. A playoff spot was in their grasp, and Pittsburgh saw it snatched away from them in the final week of the regular season. This meant a second consecutive 8-8 season with no playoffs was the best Pittsburgh could get.
Nevertheless, as training camp approaches, things are promising. Pieces, new and old, are coming into place, and the face of this team is becoming clearer. Here are six big takeaways about the Steelers at this point in the offseason.
Stats and player information courtesy of the official Steelers site.
This Team Is Committed to Running the Football
In the two Super Bowls the Steelers have won since Ben Roethlisberger has been quarterback, Roethlisberger has averaged 26.3 attempts per game. By contrast, the last two seasons, Big Ben has thrown the ball an average of 35.6 times per game.
This sort of disparity is exactly what the Steelers are trying very hard to rectify. After drafting Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 draft, Pittsburgh cut loose the running back dead weight on the roster.
Replacing them are LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer to form one of the top running back depth charts in the league. Bleacher Report NFL Draft lead writer Matt Miller plugged the Steelers group in at No. 10 in his latest rankings.
Pittsburgh has been known for some serious running back combos throughout its history. Guys like Rashard Mendenhall, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker and Amos Zereoue recently, and Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier the most famous duo of them all. In Bell and Blount, the Steelers will have the talent to push well into the 30+ carry per game range. You figure in Archer and his elite speed, and Pittsburgh has the opportunity to have a three-headed monster in the run game.
Another sign that this team is ready to commit to the run game is the addition of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. A Hall of Fame lineman in his own right, Munchak brings serious cache with him. Pittsburgh has also brought in several big, mauling offensive linemen in the draft and as undrafted free agents. With defenses forced to respect Roethlisberger and the passing game, this run game could have a field day all season long.
The Depth of These Wide Receivers
There was a point in the offseason where the wide receiver depth chart was an area of concern. However, as we get into June, things are very different. Scout.com’s James Wexell tweeted out this little nugget in response to a question about the Pittsburgh wide receivers.
I defer to Wexell as he is at this OTAs, so if he says Justin Brown is the No. 5 wide receiver, I believe him. And that means players like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Derek Moye could be out of work. Going off of what Wexell implied, the wide receiver depth chart could look like this.
Starter: Antonio Brown
Starter: Markus Wheaton
Reserve: Martavis Bryant
Reserve: Lance Moore
Reserve: Justin Brown
You add in the multi-tasker that is Dri Archer and there won’t be room for anyone else. The Steelers coaches will have to let some talent walk. A good problem to have at this point.
All That Speed at Linebacker
The theme of the offseason has been to add speed. Speed all over the field. One position in particular where this is happening in a big way is at linebacker. The addition of rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and the return of Sean Spence have turned this group into one of the fastest in the league. Which is made even more impressive when you consider Spence almost certainly won’t start in 2014.
Per NFL.com, coming out of Ohio State, Shazier ran an unofficial 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Spence, coming out of Miami ran an unofficial 4.56 seconds, per Evan Silva of Rotoworld. This doesn’t even include guys like Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds, who all have serious field speed.
What does all this speed mean? It means defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has some serious versatility. Being able to keep the best athletes on the field in all situations. Too many times last season, the defense was forced into nickel and dime defenses due to the linebackers' inability to play coverage.
Need more proof? Here are a couple of videos Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review put out on Twitter that highlight this athletic group:
Steelers OTA 4 -- good look at Sean Spence. http://t.co/cBl1ZOTglu— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) June 3, 2014
Steelers linebacker drills at OTA 3 http://t.co/gY46clIZ1W— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) May 29, 2014
Defense Starting to Look Like a 4-3
Before the Steelers faithful come at me with torches and pitchforks, just hear me out. Pittsburgh is assembling a team that is unique in some aspects. The defensive line is massive. Pittsburgh spent a second-round pick on Stephon Tuitt, who is a 305-pound defensive end. They also drafted massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers in the sixth round.
The linebackers, as mentioned previously are built for speed. This isn’t a group of linebackers who function well when dealing with a lot of contact. Why not line some of that beef up front and give guys like Shazier, Timmons and Jones a free run at the football?
A move to the 4-3 would also help the secondary. Keeping linebacker Jason Worilds on the line as a defensive end maximizes his skills, and it keeps all that speed at linebacker in coverage. It would afford the team the opportunity to blitz from a variety of spots and get the best 11 players on the field in most situations.
How would it look? Maybe something like this:
Defensive Ends: Jason Worilds and Cameron Heyward
Defensive Tackles: Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt
Outside Linebackers: Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier
Inside Linebacker: Lawrence Timmons
Cornerbacks: Cortez Allen and William Gay
Safeties: Mike Mitchell and Troy Polamalu
Is this far-fetched? Not according to Scout.com’s James Wexell. He tweeted this out when asked about the change:
I know that change is never easy, but this one feels like a very natural transition and one that could really help this team.
No New Contract for Jason Worilds
Sometimes, no matter how good you are at working a budget, you just can’t pay for everything you want. This has been the case for the Steelers this offseason. Coming into OTAs, it was believed that one of the teams’ top priorities will be to lock linebacker Jason Worilds up to a contract extension.
Nevertheless, here we are and there is no money and no contract. This means that going forward, Pittsburgh and Worilds should be playing under the assumption that they will part ways at the end of the season.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette talked about this very subject in his blog.
Bouchette brings up an excellent point here:
Would the Steelers offer him a Sean Lee contract of six years, $42 million with a $10 million signing bonus? Worilds and his agent would laugh at that. He’s guaranteed nearly $10 million this year, why commit five more years for little more than the $10 million guaranteed he’s going to get this year anyway?
This is really a no-win situation for either side. If Worilds falls flat this year, his value in the market will be low. This means the Steelers could afford to sign him, but why bother? On the other side, as Bouchette points out, if Worilds has a huge year, he’ll almost certainly price himself right out of a Steelers uniform.
This may not seem like a big deal now, but this puts a pass-rushing linebacker firmly at the forefront of the Steelers’ 2015 NFL draft needs.
A Younger, Faster Secondary
Last season, the combined age of the four starting defensive backs of the Steelers was 32 years old. Depending on how things work out, this group could average something closer to 28. And that’s with safety Troy Polamalu still in the starting lineup. Looking ahead to 2015, if Shamarko Thomas and Shaquille Richardson can develop, this group could get even younger.
How this grouping plays out as the offseason progresses is going to be fascinating. The talent among these players is all very close, and so the Steelers’ coaches could go any number of directions.
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake hasn’t hidden his agenda. He wants a physical, fast secondary, and the youth on this team certainly qualify. Lake told Steelers.com this:
We’ve got to get faster and we’ve got to get quicker and I’m always looking for tough guys. If you can tackle and you can cover, there’s a place for you not just in the NFL but especially here.
This coming season is going to be a transition year. It is likely Ike Taylor’s last season with the team, and the same could be said for Polamalu and Gay. The way things are going for the young defensive backs on the roster right now tells me the future of this secondary looks very bright.