2014 promises to be a huge season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh has missed the playoffs the previous two seasons, which is beyond out of character for this franchise. In fact, this team hasn’t missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons since a very dark stretch from 1998-2000.
This is also a significant season for head coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers went to the Super Bowl twice in his first two seasons as head coach. However, they did so with a roster comprised primarily of players assembled by former head coach Bill Cowher.
As we enter 2014, the bulk of this roster has been turned over, and for the most part, this team belongs to Tomlin. No franchise covets loyalty like the Steelers. In a league where there is a revolving door at head coach for many teams, the Steelers have had four in 45 years. That does not absolve Tomlin from his responsibility to maintain the team's success, however.
This current incarnation of the Steelers roster is loaded with talent. The front office has taken strides this offseason to shuck the “old and slow” criticisms that plagued the team in 2013. Not to mention, this team, even at 8-8, was one of the best in the league the second half of the season.
When talking about ceiling and floor for the 2014 season, it really comes down to whether this team is the group that went 2-6 to start the year or the one that went 6-2 down the stretch. Let’s take a closer look at both.
Whether or not this team over- or underachieves will depend on the individual units on both sides of the football. The skill-position players on this team are great. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is among the top at his position and really doesn’t get the credit he deserves for all he does to help this team win. That’s due in large part to the proliferation of fantasy football and the statistical mentality that fans get caught up in.
Nevertheless, Roethlisberger is the model of consistency. His quarterback rating has topped 90 every season since 2008, and he has thrown for at least 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns every season since 2007.
Even more promising, and playing to the concept of ceiling, are more recent years. Big Ben has topped 4,000 yards passing twice in the past three seasons. There’s little doubt if the offensive line can do its job, another 4,000-yard passing season is well within his grasp.
One area of Rothlisberger’s game that looks to seriously improve in 2014 is yards per attempt. If the Steelers can better establish the run game (more on that in a moment), it’s going to open up the ever-potent play-action passing game. Best-case scenario is that if Roethlisberger is able to get somewhere into the 8.2 yards-per-attempt range, it will boost the efficiency of the offense in a great way.
The cast of skill players around Roethlisberger is tremendous. Pittsburgh has a trio of talented running backs to call on, all of whom bring their own strengths. Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are big, powerful battering rams that can wear down defenses. Dri Archer is a velocious multi-tasker who is a threat to score every time he touches the football.
Looking at the wide receivers and tight ends, the news stays good. This is a group built for speed. Pittsburgh is going to trot Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant out there, along with tight end Heath Miller, and defenses are going to have to pick their poison.
On defense, what has to happen for this team to hit its ceiling is for the new and the young players to get up to speed in a hurry. That means guys like Ryan Shazier, Mike Mitchell and Stephon Tuitt all come in and play significant roles early.
It also means that pass-rushing outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones made strides over what they showed in 2013. Both players are capable of double-digit sacks, especially with the talent around them. In fact, as a unit, this team needs to find its way back into the mid-40s in terms of sacks to find success.
Back to the defensive line for a moment. This group is led by defensive end Cameron Heyward. His potential is through the roof. He just needs a little help. And that help is going to come from a platoon of players including Tuitt, Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers. This group has all the skills to free up the linebackers behind it to rack up serious numbers.
The ceiling for the secondary is somewhat tempered. This is the one area where Pittsburgh got younger, but not necessarily better this offseason. There are still questions about who is going to step up, especially at cornerback. Best-case, Ike Taylor takes a bow and is relegated to nickelback, while some combination of Shaquille Richardson, Antwon Blake and Cortez Allen fully ushers in the youth movement in the defensive secondary.
Overall, this team has the potential to win 12 games in 2014. The schedule is favorable for it, and the talent is there.
On offense, a newfound commitment to the run game means Pittsburgh could end up in the top five in that category as well as in the top 10 on offense overall.
Defensively, a return to 2012, when the Steelers were first in yards allowed and sixth in points, is easily attainable. It’s all about generating sacks and turnovers.
We can’t talk about how great this team can be without talking about how sour things could go as well. This is a group which has failed to break .500 the past two seasons. This franchise hasn’t had three seasons in a row without a winning record since 1986-88. A streak like that wouldn’t exactly be a vote of confidence for the current coaching staff.
If this team is going to disappoint, it is likely to start with the offensive line. This group was littered with injuries in 2013, and many players were forced into duty. This season, as with every new season, starts with stability. What it doesn’t start with is elite talent. At its worst, this offensive line struggles to get off the ball in run support and is lackluster at keeping Roethlisberger on his feet.
And so goes the line, so goes the rest. All that talk about Roethlisberger’s season, the improved run game and matchup nightmares is out the window if the line struggles. Instead, it’s a season of running backs breaking tackles in the backfield and Roethlisberger picking sod out of his facemask.
If this line can’t play well, this could once again be a middling offense that struggles with efficiency. This means fewer yards per carry, far too many passing attempts and an offense that will struggle to put points on the board.
On defense, the floor is low. Very low. And it is all about those cornerbacks and outside linebackers. Even at its worst, the defensive line will be serviceable. There are enough big bodies on the roster to plug up the line. And the inside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, will make plenty of plays.
Nevertheless, if that tandem of Jones and Worilds struggles to get after the quarterback, things will unravel in a hurry. It happened last year and could happen again. Once the defense cannot get pressure from the edges, all those exotic pressures get chucked out the window.
It also puts undue pressure on an inexperienced secondary. There is a unique level of synergy between the pass rush and the coverage in a Dick LeBeau-coached defense. If coverage is substandard, LeBeau can’t dial up the pressures, and if pressure doesn’t come, there will be more sub-packages.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great equalizer when it comes to the difference between ceiling and floor. Injuries. Nothing can make a good team go bad like a few poorly timed injuries. As bad as things can be, they can be made much worse with an injury or two here or there.
Nevertheless, what’s the floor for this team, without figuring in injuries? I’ll go with 6-10. The Steelers are going to be facing some really talented wide receivers, and that alone could be enough to cause them to drop a game or two that they shouldn’t. The AFC North is always brutal, so anything is possible.
Not to mention, Pittsburgh faces a nasty five-game stretch to finish the year—including two against the Cincinnati Bengals and out-of-conference games against the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs—which could wipe out a great start to the season.
All statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference.