For the past two years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have ended their seasons with an 8-8 record. For many other teams, this wouldn't be a cause for concern, but the Steelers are presently less than four years removed from their last Super Bowl appearance. Two consecutive .500 seasons for the Steelers means there's a problem.
However, the Steelers' problems have solutions. And now, the team looks like they're not just in the running to have a good season and be competitive in their AFC North division—they look like they're ready for one of the NFL's biggest turnarounds this year. Here's why.
A Better Run Game
The Steelers were not very productive when it came to running the ball last year. They amassed just 1,383 rushing yards, tied for 27th in the league. They had only nine rushing touchdowns and averaged 3.5 yards per rush attempt. The lack of balance in the offense did them few favors.
This year, things look to be different. Lead tailback Le'Veon Bell is in his second year in the NFL and should see his role expand. He's joined by LeGarrette Blount, who should make a major impact on short-yardage and goal-line rushes. The Steelers also drafted versatile and fast running back-receiver hybrid Dri Archer in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft, adding a speed complement to Blount and Bell.
While the NFL Network overlooked the Steelers' running back tandem of Bell and Blount when it comes to their projection of who will perform best, Blount isn't buying it. On their rankings, he told F. Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter, "I don’t know how they determined the best tandems...they just added people because of the names." And he may be right.
Bell had 860 yards on 244 carries in his rookie season, leading the Steelers in rushing yards, and he had eight rushing touchdowns. Blount has a total of 2,711 rushing yards in four seasons as well as 20 touchdowns and a career average of 4.7 yards per carry. Together, they should be able to move the chains effectively, with Archer's speed a punctuation mark on Pittsburgh's run game.
Running the ball appears to be a bigger focus of the Steelers' 2014 offense. In practices, Bell and Blount have repeatedly lined up in two-back sets, with Bell a traditional slash-and-dash running back and Blount bringing the downhill, Jerome Bettis-style power. This combination, with a little Archer thrown in on occasion, should serve the team better than last year's group of Bell, Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones.
However, the talent of the running backs doesn't matter without a good run-blocking offensive line, something the Steelers didn't have for myriad reasons last year. It does look like they'll have this particular problem better ironed out in the 2014 season.
Offensive Line Upgrade
The Steelers' running backs weren't wholly—or mostly—to blame for the team's struggles to run the ball last year. The offensive line was the bigger culprit. After spending the 2013 offseason installing an outside zone-blocking scheme to maximize Le'Veon Bell's skill set, they were forced to abandon it when center Maurkice Pouncey suffered ACL and MCL tears in Week 1.
Then, the line without a scheme went on to be Football Outsiders' 22nd-ranked run-blocking unit for the season, a result of its inability to help the backs reach the second level. Without Pouncey, in particular, there was a noted lack of athleticism on the line. It also didn't help that the Steelers were often shuffling tackles, with Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams each spending significant time at both right and left tackle.
It appears that there will be more stability on the line this year. Pouncey is back and healthy—he just received a five-year, $44 million contract extension—while Beachum and Gilbert have all but secured the starting tackle jobs.
It also helps that the Steelers now have a very capable offensive line coach in their employ, having hired former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak. Munchak replaces Jack Bicknell Jr., whose one year in Pittsburgh was marred by offensive line instability, poor run-blocking and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being sacked 42 times—with 31 sacks taken before Bicknell was effectively replaced in-season by assistant Shaun Sarrett.
With Sarrett taking over, the Steelers ran the ball better and kept Roethlisberger better protected. That should continue with Munchak and Sarrett working together this year. An offense is only as good as the line that blocks and protects for it—think of it like an engine. That engine was dirty and inefficient for much of last year; this year, it should be running much more smoothly.
Munchak himself is optimistic, saying, "I think you're going to see the best offensive line play, hopefully, that we have going forward for the next handful of years," referencing not only the talent of his players but also the fact that certain ones—Pouncey and Gilbert, in particular—are hitting the primes of their respective careers.
Roethlisberger and the Passing Game
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of the most efficient seasons of his career in 2013, completing 64.2 percent of his 584 pass attempts for 4,261 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley's more conservative passing attack has been good for Roethlisberger, especially with his deep passing accuracy on the decline.
Roethlisberger completed only 24 of his 76 deep passing attempts last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and had a deep ball accuracy percentage of 35.5 percent. Luckily, he only threw deep on 13 percent of his throws. In passes made from between zero and 19 yards from the line of scrimmage, however, Roethlisberger had a quarterback rating no lower than 96.1.
The relatively short-yardage passing game should be Roethlisberger's biggest strength this year. He'll yet again have impressive chain-mover Antonio Brown as his top target. Lance Moore will take over for Jerricho Cotchery in the slot. And Markus Wheaton, fourth-round 2014 draft pick Martavis Bryant and 2013 sixth-round draft pick Justin Brown will be battling this summer to earn the job that belonged to Emmanuel Sanders.
Tight end Heath Miller will also be over a year and a half removed from the massive knee injury he suffered at the end of the 2012 season and presumably that much more healthy. And backs Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer should all factor into the passing game as well. Roethlisberger isn't at a loss for passing targets.
Antonio Brown, in particular, is the Steelers' not-so-secret weapon. He was the NFL's second-leading receiver in yards last year with 1,499 and averaged 93.7 yards per game despite not having a reception going longer than 56 yards. His value is not that of a home run hitter but rather a drive-sustainer—he had 69 first downs last year, 21 more than Bell had rushing and 32 more than the second-leading Steelers receiver, Sanders.
Brown should be just as effective this year, if not more so. Roethlisberger has around him a stable of reliable receiving options, which makes Brown more dangerous to opposing defenses. He'll be the workhorse of the receiving game, but he'll have help in the healthy Miller and Moore making plays alongside him.
The younger receivers vying for the remaining wideout spot all have their own upsides. Bryant has height, giving him end-zone value. Wheaton has great hands and route-running. Justin Brown has been with the first-team offense in practices thus far and has improved considerably in his one year with the Steelers. All could have roles in the receiving game this year.
A notable change in Pittsburgh is the team using the no-huddle offense far more often in practices this year, with the plan to use it even more often in games. When the offense was clicking on a fast pace last year, the Steelers were rather successful.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly, the Steelers ran 239 no-huddle plays in 2013, or 23 percent of their total plays. Roethlisberger completed 102 of 163 passes in the hurry-up for 1,221 yards and 10 scores. This strategy paid off particularly well in the final nine games, with at least 15 no-huddle plays per game yielding a 6-3 record and an average of 10 more points scored per week than in their first seven games.
Roethlisberger believes the Steelers will be using the no-huddle more often this year, though it will be dependent on how quickly some of the new faces in the receiving game can build chemistry. As Miller said to Kaboly, "I think if we can [get acclimated to it] then it can be a good weapon for us, but like I said, we have to have 11 guys on the same page operating in the same manner, and that's not an easy thing to do."
However, it's a major part of their practices already. Moore noted, "If you would've told me a month ago that we would be doing no-huddle on the fourth and fifth OTA, I would've said you are crazy." The Steelers, though, would be crazy not to focus on the hurry-up offense considering how well it worked for them last season.
Though the Steelers are re-focusing on establishing the run, Roethlisberger's arm is still what drives the team's offense. He's in a system that suits his talents and is surrounded by receivers with whom he has established or can establish on-field chemistry. It should be another good year for Pittsburgh's passing offense.
The Steelers defense in 2013 wasn't terrible—but it wasn't great, either. It ranked 13th in yards per game allowed, ninth in passing yards per game allowed, 21st in rushing yards per game allowed and 14th in opponent's points per game.
What the Steelers really lacked was an attack. They tied for 25th in total sacks with 34.0 and tied for 29th in interceptions with 10. Age and a lack of speed contributed to these low totals. Both of those problems have been addressed so far this offseason via free agency and the draft. Pittsburgh's defense looks poised to return to fearsome form in 2014.
The front seven, in particular, looks to be more aggressive and fast than it was last year, especially with the addition of Pittsburgh's 2014 first-round draft pick, linebacker Ryan Shazier. Shazier looks like he'll buck the trend of Steelers defensive rookies sitting out their first season—he's been with the first-team defense, playing in multiple positions both inside and outside and even lining up in coverage against Antonio Brown.
Shazier will be a pass-rushing inside linebacker in Dick LeBeau's defense, but he'll also be a major part of their run-stopping as well. He's versatile, talented and familiar with the system having played in a similarly-styled defense at Ohio State. Just his presence alone should boost the entire defense.
Odds are good that another rookie, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, will also start considering how thin the team is at the position. Tuitt is another example of the Steelers not only getting younger on defense but also faster. He'll join Cam Heyward at the position.
The Steelers also drafted a beast of a nose tackle this year, the 6'7", 350-pound Daniel McCullers. The job was held by Steve McLendon last year and he performed well, but McLendon is not a massive mountain of a man like McCullers. His size will not only allow him to take on two offensive linemen at once, giving an advantage to Pittsburgh's pass rush—he'll also be able to stuff running backs coming up the middle in ways McLendon couldn't.
This boost to the front seven will help out the Steelers' secondary immensely. Ike Taylor remains at cornerback—albeit at a discounted rate—and is 34 years old. He's simply not fast enough to cover many of the league's younger, No. 1 receivers, so at least he will have help up front to create a pass rush that will take some of the pressure off of him.
They did get younger in the secondary, however, by adding Mike Mitchell at free safety, replacing the 34-year-old Ryan Clark. Mitchell has nothing but praise for his new defense and coordinator, and apparently the feeling is mutual. In speaking with Steelers.com's Teresa Varley, Mitchell said,
I haven't made any mental errors yet. I pride myself on being a prepared, smart football player so I think I'm just along with everyone else. We're putting in a good amount of plays and to be able to play them and play them at a high speed I think I am doing a pretty good job. Coach LeBeau came up and told me I was doing a pretty good job. So I think I am doing a pretty good job.
If the Steelers defense is better than they were last year by just half, they'll be an all-around, improved football team. The youth movement is in full effect, rookies will actually start in their first season and aggression and speed will be returned back into this hallmark side of the ball. It's hard not to see more wins as a result.
The Steelers made important upgrades at positions both offensive and defensive this offseason to finally get themselves out of the 8-8 hole they've been mired in for the last two years. The difference this time is that it truly looks like their efforts are going to pay off significantly.
How many wins do you think the Steelers will have this season?
The run game has a great chance to return to form with a stable offensive line and a line coach better suited to the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger has a reliable cast of characters to throw to. The defense has gotten a long-needed infusion of speed and youth that should result in more aggression—more sacks, more stuffed runs, more interceptions.
Though a turnaround from 8-8 to 10, 11 or 12 wins doesn't seem like it would represent one of the biggest in the league this year, the successes the Steelers have experienced in the past decade make eight wins feel like three or four.
A double-digit win season this year would likely result in a return to the postseason and a chance to earn a seventh Super Bowl victory. The Steelers have every reason to be considered championship contenders this year thanks to the many key roster moves they've made in the spring. That's a major turnaround, even if the improvement represents just three or four more wins.