Ranking Pittsburgh Steelers' Most Irreplaceable Players
Not all football players are created equal.
The Pittsburgh Steelers may not be seen as a title contender, but they’re very much in contention for the AFC North crown—that is, if their key cogs remain in the lineup.
The following eight Steelers are the players that the team could least afford to lose in 2014. They’re ranked based on performance, positional value and the quality of depth behind them.
8. Heath Miller
Like some others on this list, Heath Miller’s impact on the Steelers may be best seen from the instances when he’s unavailable.
This past season, Miller missed the Steelers’ first two games to continue rehabbing a catastrophic knee injury suffered in 2012. Coincidentally or not, those two efforts resulted in 19 total points, easily Pittsburgh’s two lowest scoring outputs all year. In fact, the team matched or topped that number in 13 of the 14 games that followed.
The Steelers might’ve pulled out a victory in one of those first two contests, but Miller’s fill-in, David Paulson, lost a crucial red-zone fumble on a Monday night in Cincinnati.
Miller’s presence with the Steelers has become even more vital with the departure of receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Cotchery was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite red-zone target last season, but Miller’s been one of Roethlisberger’s favorite targets for a decade.
Miller will be expected to, and should, make up for a good portion of the 10 touchdown catches that Cotchery took to Carolina.
7. Troy Polamalu
Expecting a 33-year old Troy Polamalu to fully retain his knack for the jaw-dropping play is foolish. However, Polamalu showed in 2013 that he’s still got a few quality seasons left in him.
Last year, Polamalu registered a pick-six and multiple sacks (two) for the first time in several seasons. He also tallied a career-high five forced fumbles.
Each of those statistics illustrates why the Steelers need Polamalu on the field in ’14; the defense is devoid of established playmakers.
The Steelers' top three cornerbacks (Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay) have 22 career interceptions combined. That’s just two more than Richard Sherman’s managed in his three professional seasons.
While Polamalu is still one of the few Pittsburgh defenders who make quarterbacks think twice, he’s also needed for another role: to act as a mentor.
Free-agent signee Mike Mitchell was a full-time starter for the first time with Carolina last season. He also proved adept as a playmaker with 3.5 sacks and four interceptions in 2013. Mitchell will have a limited window of time to play with and learn from Polamalu, so he’d be wise to pay close attention to the future Hall of Famer.
6. Jason Worilds
Jason Worilds’ first three professional seasons were relatively nondescript. During that span, the Virginia Tech product had 10 starts and as many sacks, playing as a reserve behind two pass-rushing studs in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
It appeared that Worilds, though serviceable, would never prove worthy of his status as a second-round draft pick. That was, until this past season.
The fourth-year veteran began the year as a backup, but with Jarvis Jones failing to impress and Woodley hamstrung (get it?) by injuries, Worilds was inserted into the lineup. He then proceeded to crush any conclusions that had been drawn about his play.
In his last eight starts Worilds tallied an impressive seven sacks. That performance was enough to earn him the nod over Woodley—who signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders—as the Steelers’ top pass-rusher entering this season.
Now it’s time to see if Worilds can live up to that billing. If he can’t, Pittsburgh doesn’t have much in the way of alternatives.
5. Cameron Heyward
The primary reason the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run defense has been so dominant in recent seasons is due to having a stout defensive line. With Aaron Smith retired, Casey Hampton having moved on and Brett Keisel still an unsigned free agent, the Steelers have set their sights on molding yet another powerful force up front.
But, of course, that sort of group can’t be constructed overnight. The current edition of the Steel Curtain comes with more questions than answers. Whether it’s what positions Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon will play or if Stephon Tuitt will start as a rookie, there are few certainties up front.
But one development did make itself readily apparent last season: Cameron Heyward’s the real deal.
Heyward was pressed into duty last season, his third in the league, and he instantly became one of the Steelers’ most impactful defenders. Heyward tallied five sacks and seven batted passes. He ranks ahead of the team's top pass-rusher in Worilds because he's no slouch in that department either—not to mention he'll be clearing the way for many of his teammates to get after the passer.
With so many questions surrounding the men up front, the Steelers will need Heyward to build upon this performance if they’re to field a resurgent defensive line.
4. Maurkice Pouncey
Shortly after the Steelers’ 2013 season got underway, a huge wrench was tossed into the plans of their offense.
The team planned on employing a zone-blocking scheme in ’13. That scheme fit the strengths of both the offensive line and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell. Unfortunately, an ACL tear suffered by center Maurkice Pouncey in Week 1 derailed those plans almost immediately.
Fernando Velasco was signed off the streets and performed admirably given the circumstances, but one can imagine that the offense had to be simplified in order to accommodate the new player. The loss of Pouncey’s great ability to make calls and adjustments from the line also had to hurt the offense to some degree.
The Steelers recently expressed how much faith they have in Pouncey by inking the three-time All-Pro to an extension running through 2019. A healthy Pouncey will be vital to putting new offensive line coach Mike Munchak’s blocking schemes into motion.
3. Lawrence Timmons
It might seem hard to believe, but 28-year-old Lawrence Timmons is now the elder statesman of the Steelers front seven. In fact, of the projected starters only Steve McLendon, who entered the league two years after Timmons did in 2007, is older.
Being 28 isn’t old by any stretch; Ray Lewis’ career spanned nearly a full decade after that birthday. That being said, 28 seems old when comparing Timmons to his fellow linebackers.
Neither Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier is older than 24. 2010 second-rounder Jason Worilds turned 26 three months ago. That means the onus is on Timmons to lead this young, athletic group of linebackers.
It’s a role he was pressed into for much of last season when both Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley were sidelined by injury. Timmons responded with the second-highest number of tackles for a season (126) of his career.
Now, the familiar faces of Foote and Woodley will no longer be around team facilities. Timmons will again be relied upon to get his fellow troops in the front seven in order. Without him, that responsibility would fall to one of the aforementioned youngsters who will, in many cases, be puzzling over their own duties.
2. Antonio Brown
But at least heading into 2013, Brown still had experienced wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to help shoulder the burden.
That won’t be the case this season. Sanders and Cotchery departed in free agency. Now, the 25-year-old Brown is suddenly the longest tenured receiver on the Steelers. That means he’ll take on even greater responsibility as the likes of Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant continue to familiarize themselves with Pittsburgh’s offense.
The Steelers couldn’t have asked for better (or more consistent) hands to carry that burden. Brown became the first receiver ever to pull in at least five passes and gain at least 50 receiving yards in all 16 games of an NFL season. He also set a single-season mark for Pittsburgh with 1,499 receiving yards.
That’s a lot ground for a lot of unproven commodities to cover if Brown goes down.
1. Ben Roethlisberger
As has been the case for much of his storied career, Ben Roethlisberger will be the Steelers’ most irreplaceable player again in 2014.
Sure, Antonio Brown’s coming off his second team MVP award in the last three seasons, but could he have done so without Roethlisberger? Brown’s own talents would doubtlessly result in solid statistics, but stellar quarterbacking usually aids a 1,500-yard campaign as well.
Evidence of Roethlisberger’s indispensability is available as recently as 2012. The Steelers were sitting pretty at 6-3, but a rib injury shelved Roethlisberger for three games.
The first two of the games, though close, were marred by inefficient offense in critical situations. Byron Leftwich couldn’t complete even half of his passes against the Baltimore Ravens, and Charlie Batch and Co. gift-wrapped a win for the Cleveland Browns a week later with a mind-boggling eight turnovers. One has to wonder if having a healthy Roethlisberger might have resulted in a more desirable outcome for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers missed the playoffs in 2012 and, if forced to rely on Bruce Gradkowski for any significant length of time, would likely suffer a similar fate in 2014.