The Five Biggest Issues Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers with OTAs Wrapped
The last few weeks have been great for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Following what appears on paper to be a great draft, the Steelers staff has had several weeks to assess and evaluate the talent on the roster.
So now, as training camp approaches, Pittsburgh has been able to start to plug in players and schemes to help fix some of the issues that have plagued this team the past two seasons. Nevertheless, even after all this due diligence, there are still plenty of issues that remain.
Let’s take a closer look at five of the issues this team still needs to sort out between now and the start of the regular season.
All team and player information courtesy of steelers.com.
Sorting out the Wide Receiver Depth Chart
If the season started today, it appears as if the two starting wide receivers would be Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton. Brown emerged in 2013 as one of the most consistent and productive wide receivers in the entire league, hauling in 110 receptions for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns. Needless to say, his spot is secure.
However, if Wheaton were to win the other starting spot, it would be with just six career receptions on his resume. But if not Wheaton, then who?
Perhaps rookie Martavis Bryant. He’s got all the speed of Wheaton, but in a body that is a full five inches taller.
Or could it come down to the elder statesman on the roster, Lance Moore? Of the three in contention, Moore is far and away the most experienced, having posted 346 career receptions. When healthy, Moore flashes elite skills, and after seeing how quarterback Ben Roethlisberger counted on veteran Jerricho Cotchery last season, don’t be shocked if Moore doesn’t become Big Ben's go-to guy in 2014.
Even beyond those top four, if we assume they all make the roster, who is left? Players like Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Brown and Derek Moye are all in the mix for what is likely one roster spot. It’s not a bad problem to have, but nevertheless, the coaches must get it sorted out.
Who Starts at Nose Tackle?
The Steelers defense struggled in 2013, due in part to a lack of presence in the middle of the defensive line. Defensive tackle Steve McLendon struggled to the point that the entire Steelers defense suffered. He had to come off the field, forcing Pittsburgh into sub-packages far too often.
This season, the Steelers have two options to replace McLendon...and both are fascinating.
First is veteran defensive tackle Cam Thomas. Thomas is much less of a hybrid defensive lineman like McLendon and more of a pure nose tackle. He’s strong, built low to the ground and plays with excellent leverage.
The problem with Thomas throughout his career has been consistency. Regardless of how well he plays when he's at his best, if he can’t show it on every down, he won’t be long for the starting lineup.
The other option is rookie defensive tackle Daniel McCullers. If size is a concern, you can rest easy with McCullers on the job. In fact, the former Tennessee star might be too big to play the position. And by big, I mean tall. It is difficult for a tall nose tackle—let alone one who stands 6'7"—to keep his pad level low enough to be effective.
However, if you didn’t draft him to man the middle, why draft him at all? Short of a move to the 4-3, there’s no other spot that McCullers can play on this defense. For all the changes this defense has made, none will matter if one of these nose tackles doesn't emerge as a dominant player.
Anyone Want to Play Cornerback?
I know, I know. This team doesn’t have a cornerback problem. If you believe that, then I want to buy some of what you are selling. Going over the cornerback depth chart, here is what we are looking at:
- Ike Taylor
- Cortez Allen
- William Gay
- Shaquille Richardson
- Antwon Blake
- Brice McCain
- Isaiah Green
- Deion Belue
- Devin Smith
Now, no one is saying there aren’t some talented players on this roster. However, looking at this group, it is hard to pick out a true No. 1 cornerback. Regardless of everything else, this group is going to see some exceptional wide receivers this season.
Guys like A.J. Green Andre Johnson, Josh Gordon, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Roddy White and Julio Jones are all going to be doing work on this pack of cornerbacks. Between now and the start of the season, someone had better step up and be that guy Taylor was at the start of last season.
Find That Pass Rush
Last season, the Steelers were only able to muster up 34 for sacks, and that was a big part of why they ended up No. 14 in points allowed and No. 13 in yards allowed. Keep in mind, this team hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in both of those categories since 1999. For the record, the Steelers finished 6-10 that year.
In order to right the ship in 2014, it has to begin with the pass rush. Outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones are going to be counted on to provide pressure coming off the edges, and Jones in particular has to do a much better job than he did last season.
In order to bolster the pass rush, the Steelers are also going to have to count on defensive end Cameron Heyward to improve on his five-sack total from a year ago. It’s unfortunate that—on a defense with a history of top-notch coaching and so many terrific athletes—a 288-pound 3-4 defensive end is the second-best pass-rusher on the roster.
Perhaps the key to getting the pass rush back on track is to incorporate more exotic pressures involving the inside linebackers. There’s no doubt that Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier are more than capable of getting after the quarterback. Of course, the trade off in blitzing them is that it puts an even greater onus on the outside linebackers and defensive backs to maintain their coverage.
Generate More Turnovers
Pittsburgh finished the 2013 season with a minus-four turnover ratio. Of the Steelers’ 10 total interceptions, only three of them from cornerbacks, while it was a linebacker who led the team. These kinds of numbers are a sure recipe for failure from a defensive standpoint.
This debate always comes down to the chicken or the egg. Can a team that fails to rush the passer force turnovers? Or is it the forcing of turnovers that aid the play of the pass rush? It appears the Steelers are counting on the former. Let’s all hope that these new additions will add the heat on the quarterback that makes the job of a crop of average defensive backs easier.
In any case, an aggressive approach is what helps a team create turnovers. In 2013, this defense was far too passive—playing coverage as opposed to applying pressure, which allowed opposing offenses to stay on the field.
Perhaps between now and the start of the season one or two of these young cornerbacks will step up and make the lives of those defensive linemen and linebackers much easier.