Pittsburgh Steelers Offseason State of the Union
Football in shorts is over for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which means training camp is quickly approaching. In exactly one month, the Steelers will report to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to make their final preparations for the 2014 season.
As players and fans wait for the start of camp, there is no better time to reflect on the state of the franchise. The 2014 offseason was an important one for the Steelers, as they attempt to break a string of back-to-back missed playoff appearances.
General manager Kevin Colbert utilized the draft and free agency to make upgrades to the roster that he believes will help get Pittsburgh back into playoff contention. These upgrades included improving play in the trenches and adding speed to the playmaking positions on both sides of the ball.
While the new additions have only been in football-like situations, the players and coaching staff are excited with what they have seen. However, will it be enough for a successful 2014 season?
Here is a current look at the state of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rookies Making Progress
Rarely do the Steelers look for significant contributions from their rookie class, but that is not the case this year. By the time the season starts, there should be at least one in the starting lineup. Another two or three will play a significant number of snaps.
First-round choice Ryan Shazier was inserted into the starting lineup, and he has not looked back. He has done everything that you would expect from the No. 15 selection and looks to be the “real deal,” according to Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com.
Shazier’s presence will add a great deal of speed to Pittsburgh’s front seven. The hope is that he can use this speed to help create the splash plays that have been missing in recent years.
Second- and third-round selections Stephon Tuitt and Dri Archer may not start, but both have the opportunity to become significant role players this year.
Tuitt has a much better understanding of the defense, but he told reporters that there is plenty of room to grow, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
“I have learned the playbook a lot better. I am a lot more comfortable with it,” Tuitt said. “I understand the defense a lot more. I am still learning the defense, but understand it more. The most important thing is learning to play alongside your teammates and that chemistry.”
The Steelers will eventually need Tuitt to add a physical presence to their defensive front to help control the line of scrimmage and generate pressure on the quarterback. However, he does not need to start immediately and will sit behind Cam Thomas until he is ready.
While Tuitt was drafted to add size and power, Archer was brought in for his speed and ability as a playmaker.
Archer will handle the kick-returning duties and will be a situational player on offense. He can line up at running back and receiver, which means that defenses will have something extra to prepare for. It will be up to Todd Haley to put him in the best situation possible to get into open space where he can use his speed to generate big plays.
The rest of the rookie class does not carry as much pressure.
Martavis Bryant is one of the most physically gifted wide receivers on the team, but he will likely find himself near the bottom of the depth chart for the duration of the season. Rather than force him into the lineup, expect to see him in special packages that will take advantage of his height and speed.
The rest of the draft class, which consists of Shaquille Richardson, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Zumwalt, Daniel McCullers and Rob Blanchflower, will all compete for a spot on the roster.
Richardson, Zumwalt and McCullers all have a strong chance to make the team due to the lack of depth at cornerback, outside linebacker and nose tackle, respectively. With adequate veteran experience on the offensive line and at tight end, Johnson and Blanchflower will have to have a strong camp.
Though the entire draft class will need time to develop, this appears to be a strong group of rookies—on paper—in terms of building depth and upgrading the Steelers' overall talent level.
Free-Agent Signings Poised to Make an Impact
Kevin Colbert had one of his most active free-agent periods since joining the Steelers. Not only did he cut ties with some dead weight, but he also brought in a wealth of free agents from outside of the organization to help reshape a roster that has only won eight games in each of the last two seasons.
At least three of these signings should make a significant impact this year.
Mike Mitchell was Pittsburgh’s top free-agent signing. Not only did he get the biggest contract, but he also is expected to step in and start at free safety. He has had a strong offseason, but now he is looking forward to getting comfortable with his new partner at safety—Troy Polamalu, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
It's just us hammering out reps together. I think you need a little adversity too because you can't really tell who a person is or how they're going to respond until you get into tough situations. It could be a game until we really are on the same page now but it's a process of growing together so we can get to a point where I just know how thinks.
Mitchell has the chance to be a playmaker in the secondary—something that Ryan Clark was not last season. In 2013, he had 3.5 sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. The Steelers will expect that type of production and more from Mitchell.
Cam Thomas and Lance Moore were both brought in for depth purposes, but they may need to take on a greater role early in the year.
Thomas was most likely signed to replace Al Woods as a backup at nose tackle and defensive end, per Brown, but the lack of established talent at defense end has changed those plans. Unless the Steelers re-sign Brett Keisel, Thomas will start at defensive end opposite of Cameron Heyward until Tuitt is ready. That could mean that he starts all 16 games.
Unlike Thomas, Moore probably won’t start, but he will play an integral role in the offense. With Markus Wheaton expected to start at wide receiver, Moore will take over as the slot receiver. Here, he will receive plenty of targets as one of Ben Roethlisberger’s top options.
Roethlisberger told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he has been impressed with Moore throughout spring practices:
Lance is a pro. He's a great professional. He's going to be really good, and I think we're going to have a good connection. There were a few things (in practice) that were just a foot off. A pass I threw a little bit outside, he thought I was going in. Those little things we can work on, and that's what camp is going to be about.
While Moore and Thomas may not be long-term starters, they are two quality stopgap players until a younger player is ready to step into the starting lineup.
New Technology to Help Offense, Maybe
Technology is constantly evolving, and that can be a scary thing for an old-school team like the Steelers. However, they did not shy away from SchuttVision during OTAs.
SchuttVision is a high-definition video camera that can be attached to helmets to provide the coaching staff with a first-person view of what individual players see on the field. It has been particularly useful with the quarterbacks, according to what Todd Haley told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
You can identify the fronts and when we are pointing out (middle linebackers) and stuff like that because usually the eyes are looking where he's pointing. You can see the direction the head is at the snap. It's interesting technology. It's a neat concept.
We haven't done a whole bunch with it, but the technology is phenomenal. If not for anything else, it forces the player that has it on to be on his P's and Q's.
Despite its value, it appears that the Pittsburgh coaching staff has yet to find an effective way to use the new technology and has quite the learning curve to go through. Whether or not the staff continues with SchuttVision throughout training camp remains to be seen.
If nothing else, it is encouraging that the Steelers are open to the idea of new technology. As time progresses, they may need to take advantage of the bright minds from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to help determine effective methods to use technology and to provide potential candidates to maybe even add a specialist to their staff.
Mike Munchak Perfect Fit for Offensive Line
It is a new year, but it is the same old story with the offensive line. Seriously, though, this should finally be the year that the line becomes a strength.
Why? Mike Munchak.
Kelvin Beachum told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Munchak has pulled out all of the stops to help this unit live up to its potential:
"[Munchak’s] even mentioned having Tunch [Ilkin] come in if we have extra time to do some extra work,'' Beachum said. "He's referred to it multiple times. Munch is about using every single resource possible to better you as a player and finding a way to succeed."
Maurkice Pouncey said that Munchak brought instant credibility to the locker room, via F. Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter:
“To get a new coach, a Hall-of-Fame player like Mike Munchak, is awesome,” said center Maurkice Pouncey. “He brings a completely different set of credentials to this. He played the game and played it at a high level. We really needed him, which is great for the group.”
Whether it has been injuries, lack of confidence or the failure to understand previous coaches' schemes, something has not clicked with this group. It has flashed greatness, but it has yet to realize its potential. If anyone can bring out that potential, it is Munchak.
Offensive Philosophy Finally Established
If you were asked to identify the Steelers’ offensive philosophy over the past five or six years, you probably would have had a difficult time doing so. That will not be the case in 2014.
The tone has already been set, and the Steelers plan to expand the no-huddle offense and run the ball more effectively. For the first time in years, it appears as though they are actually going to play to their strengths rather than force a system that lacks the proper personnel to succeed.
Roethlisberger is particularly excited about the various packages that they can show from the no-huddle this year.
“We’ll have some different personnel groups in the no-huddle,” Roethlisberger told Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com. “In years past it’s been kind of one, maybe two, personnel groups. And now we can kind of do some different things.”
These personnel groups will also include those that can effectively run the ball. With Munchak on board to coach the line and Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount in the backfield, a power ground game will certainly be a part of the scheme.
A successful running game also means that the Steelers can once again take advantage of the play-action pass.
Roethlisberger was terrific early in his career with this approach, but he has struggled recently. That is likely because they could not effectively run the ball or protect the quarterback. Expect different results this season based on what Roethlisberger told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
We have to run the ball well and protect. Play-actions are usually deep plays down the field, so the line has to hold up for a couple of seconds and maybe longer. When you can run the ball, establish that and then you get guys who can hold up in the blocking, then you can take advantage of big plays down the field.
We have the weapons to do it. We just have to be able to do it.
In recent years, there has been a lot of lip service when it has come to the ground game, but this year it appears that the Steelers will finally back up their talk with their actions.
Defense Fastest Ben Roethlisberger Has Seen
All good things must come to an end, and it has been a tough end for the Steelers defense, according to Dick LeBeau, via Judy Battista of NFL.com:
We were very, very fortunate that a lot of our players played a long and wonderful career, played excellently for us, but in a matter of days, years, ticks of the clock, you're going to have different people.
We were holding off as long as we could because those guys were very great players and they are difficult to replace. Some of these young guys are going to do a good job of doing exactly that.
It will never be easy to get rid of the guys who helped the Steelers to their second-best decade of football in the organization’s history, but it was time. The early results have been very good.
That may be—in part—due to the presence of Mitchell and Shazier in the starting lineup. The common trait between both of these players: their speed.
“I thought it was a really good camp. This is as fast of a defense I have seen since I have been here,” Roethlisberger said.
Having a fast defense isn’t purely about speed either.
Yes, the Steelers have plenty of it, but they must also display a comfort level with the playbook and trust the defense. As the new faces get more reps throughout training camp, they will gain a better understanding of LeBeau’s complex defense and will play even faster.
A fast, aggressive defense is something that the Steelers have not had for several years now. They have had to sit back, and the results were not good. The added dimension of speed should help LeBeau get back to his attacking style of play and put the defense back near the top of the NFL.
Depth Still an Issue on Defense
There may be plenty of excitement with the new speed on defense, but that does not mean that this unit is without its concerns.
The pass rush has not been good in several seasons now, and it potentially could suffer again this year. Of a great concern, though, is the lack of depth at outside linebacker and defensive end.
Defensive end is in a slightly better position because of an abundance of talented, young options. Behind Heyward and Thomas, the Steelers have Tuitt, Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams and Josh Mauro.
While these players lack experience, they have the physical tools necessary to succeed in the NFL. It may be too much to ask any to start this year, but that's not case when considering stepping in as a rotational player. Expect at least one or two of these ends to stand out and impress the coaches.
The same cannot be said at outside linebacker.
There are plenty of questions surrounding starters Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, let alone the players behind them.
Worilds has had a history of injuries and has only played a half-season of productive football. Meanwhile, Jones only had one sack as a rookie and did not flash the potential displayed in the past from some of the successful outside linebacker prospects in Pittsburgh’s system.
Aside from the starters, the Steelers lack any proven depth.
Arthur Moats will be the top option behind Worilds and Jones, yet he only has five career sacks. His last sack came back in 2011. For a team known for developing outside linebackers, the fact that Moats is the top backup is very telling.
Beyond Moats, there are several players who will compete for a roster spot.
Chris Carter has plenty of NFL experience, but he has lacked the production necessary to guarantee him a job. Zumwalt in a versatile rookie who can play inside and outside linebacker, but he may be a better fit on the inside. Even if he can play the outside, he is a year or two away from contributing.
The final option is Howard Jones. He is an athletic player, but he played at a small school and was signed as an undrafted free agent.
The logical solution to the depth issues would be to re-sign Keisel and James Harrison. Both know the defense and could contribute in limited roles this year. As long as they wouldn’t block a deserving young player from seeing the field, each would be an ideal one-year stopgap for the defense.
Steelers Healthy Heading into Training Camp
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers are healthy heading into training camp. Of all of the news that came out of the OTAs, there is none better than that.
Injuries during spring practice can derail a season before it starts, and the Steelers were lucky enough to escape without any significant issues. Even more encouraging was that the players recovering from major injuries were back on the field.
Both Maurkice Pouncey and Sean Spence were on the practice field and will be good to go in July.
While an injury can occur at any point of time, the Steelers will enter training camp satisfied with a healthy roster.