Pittsburgh Steelers' 4 Biggest Question Marks Ahead of Training Camp
The Pittsburgh Steelers have no shortage of questions after two seasons without a playoff berth.
The team lost two top contributors at the wide receiver spot this offseason. They’ve also failed to show much of anything resembling a pass rush through the past three seasons.
Who and how will the team look to alleviate these issues? Read on to find out.
Depth at Wide Receiver
Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, last year’s second and third options, opted to join new teams this offseason. 2013 draftee Markus Wheaton and free agent pick-up Lance Moore have tentatively filled their spots.
Wheaton struggled through a finger injury last year and as a result, caught all of six passes. Much greater contributions will be expected of the Oregon State product in his second season.
NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus described Wheaton as “a disciplined route runner with plus speed (4.4-flat forty at 2013 combine), strong hands and a high football IQ.” If he can live up to that description, he should have no trouble complimenting Brown.
As for Moore, he’s reminiscent of Cotchery when he joined the Steelers in 2011. Moore’s a veteran possession receiver whose stats won’t wow anyone, but who will come up big in key moments and on third downs.
Dri Archer's Role
Many were surprised when the Steelers chose Kent State running back/wide receiver Dri Archer in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft.
The versatile speedster presents real value to virtually any offense, but for a team with pressing needs at other spots, Archer seemed like a luxury pick. So, how then will the Steelers utilize Archer in order to make the selection worthwhile?
Well, according to an interview with Archer and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Alan Robinson, the real question is how won’t they utilize him?
“Playing in the backfield, playing some slot, playing some H-back, playing some fullback and helping the special teams,” Archer told Robinson.
With Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount firmly entrenched atop the depth chart, Archer shouldn’t expect many carries.
That being said, Archer’s big-play ability should still garner him a few touches out of the backfield per game. And with 16 of his 40 touchdowns at Kent State coming either through the air or via a kick return, he should still see plenty of opportunity to shine.
Perceived Weakness at Cornerback
Apparently, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t see the cornerback position as being a big need heading into this year’s draft. They were in the minority.
Most mock drafters had the team targeting a player like Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard or Kyle Fuller in the draft’s first round. Dennard was the only one of that trio available, but the Steelers bypassed him in favor of Ryan Shazier.
They proceeded to bypass the cornerback spot for another three rounds, finally picking up Shaquille Richardson on Day 3.
Ike Taylor has shadowed opponent’s top receivers for the majority of his Steelers career, but a decline in ’13 lead to a pay cut and maybe a lesser role. Cortez Allen fits the mold of a prototype corner, but his ’13 season failed to match the promise he flashed at the end of 2012.
William Gay, long a pariah for defensive miscues, had arguably his best season as the team’s nickel corner in ’13.
In spite of last year’s defensive decline, it appears the team will be comfortable to trot out that trio again in ’14. What that insinuates is they see enough promise in Allen, Richardson and Antwon Blake to hold off on a big time investment at cornerback.
Where Will the Pass Rush Come from
It’s no coincidence that the Steelers stopped fielding Super Bowl caliber teams around the same time they stopped fielding a top-flight pass rush.
Pittsburgh hasn’t hit 40 sacks in any of the past three seasons nor have they won a playoff game. They managed at least 47 in the three seasons prior, two of those three ended in the Super Bowl.
If the team is going to reach those heights again, then it must get after the passer.
There may not be one elite rusher, but there are several who could make this unit more than capable. Cameron Heyward turned in a five-sack season in his first as a starter. If he can equal or better those numbers, it would greatly help the linebackers behind him.
As for those linebackers, they are a potential-laden, yet largely unproven group.
Lawrence Timmons is the stalwart and a capable rusher with at least three sacks in five of the past six years. Jason Worilds, last year’s breakout star and team sack-leader, will be asked to lead the charge from Week 1 and prove he’s worth a big extension.
Those two will likely be flanked by Pittsburgh’s last two first round picks in Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier. Jones was pressed into duty last year and disappointed with just one lonely sack. He’ll need to show marked improvement in year two.
Shazier’s got eye-popping speed and should be able to earn a few sacks by virtue of that alone. If schemed properly, he can be a terror for opposing passers.