Many teams preach a championship standard, but the Pittsburgh Steelers live it. Anything less than contending for a title is a disappointment, and they have failed to do so after consecutive eight-win seasons. The Steelers needed a change, and that is exactly what they got this offseason.
Rather than sit back and hope for improvements, general manager Kevin Colbert took an aggressive approach to the offseason—at least by Pittsburgh standards. He allowed replaceable parts such as Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Al Woods and Ryan Clark to leave via free agency and brought in Mike Mitchell, LeGarrette Blount and others.
Pittsburgh then used the draft to add size and speed to the lineup. Ryan Shazier, Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant were three of the fastest players in the draft, while Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers were two of the biggest.
Maybe even bigger than the changes in personnel was the addition of Mike Munchak to the coaching staff. If coaches were free agents, Munchak would have been ranked near the top.
But how many of these moves strengthened the team, and which strengthened it the most? The Steelers made several significant moves that have vastly improved the team, and these results will not take long to be noticed.
Running Back Depth
The Steelers made a serious commitment to upgrade their running game after finishing 27th in the league last season with just 86.4 yards per game.
While the blame cannot be placed on the shoulders of starting running back Le’Veon Bell, he did a bulk of the running with 244 of the team’s 394 carries. Though he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, it was hard to ignore his strong finish to the season.
Bell averaged over 4.0 yards per carry in four of his final five games of the season en route to 405 yards and four touchdowns. He finished the season with three straight games of 20 carries or more, but he only had five games all year with at least 20 attempts.
That is because the Steelers relied heavily on Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer to share the load with Bell. These two combined for 381 yards on 97 carries and no touchdowns. Besides their overall lack of production, neither back offered a change of pace.
That is part of the reason that the Steelers added two very different runners to their backfield this offseason—Blount and Archer.
At 6’0” and 250 pounds, Blount is the biggest back the Steelers have. Though he may not start, he is capable of carrying the load if necessary.
Over the course of his career, Blount has only had fewer than 100 carries in a season once. That came in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—the only season in which he ran for fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. In his other three seasons, he has been very productive and has averaged 5.0 yards per carry twice.
Last season in New England, Blount ran for 772 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. His production easily puts him ahead of the combination of Jones and Dwyer. Even though his carries will be limited behind Bell, Blount should see significant action in short-yardage and red-zone situations. He has been a first-down machine, moving the chains on 19.3 percent of his carries, and has scored 20 touchdowns.
Pittsburgh is getting the exact opposite running back with Archer. His speed has been well-documented. That is what separates him from not only every other running back on the roster, but every other weapon that the Steelers have.
He will need to use that speed, because at 5’8” and 173 pounds, Archer is not running over anyone. Some may actually say that he is too small to play in the NFL, but not Mike Tomlin, who said via Scott Brown of ESPN.com, “He is not small. He is short.”
The Steelers must figure out if Archer will be used primarily as a running back or receiver, but his college coach, Paul Haynes, believes that he is a running back first. Archer has proved he can run the ball with 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012. He led college football with an average of 8.99 yards per carry.
Whether it is at running back, receiver or both, Archer has something special to offer the Steelers offense. But no matter what his role is, he will eventually become a key piece in the offense and one that will keep defensive coordinators guessing.
"I'm not sure," Archer said regarding his role, per August Fagerstrom of the Akron Beacon Journal. "It's going to be a big role, but I'm just going to do whatever I'm asked to do. Play receiver, play running back, helping special teams. Whatever they want me to do, I'm going to do it."
Offensive Line Coaching
“The offensive line will be better this year.”
It is a phrase that we have heard for years, but we have yet to see the results. This unit continued to be a weak spot for the offense in 2013. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked at an alarming rate at the start of the year, and the running game never took off.
However, they began to pick it up at the end of the year. Roethlisberger was sacked just seven times in his final seven games, and the team rushed for over 100 yards in four of them. The potential is there, and to borrow a line from Ghostbusters, “We have the tools, and we have the talent.”
It’s Munchak time.
Munchak was one of the best additions that the Steelers made during the offseason. Known as one of the best—if not the best—offensive line coaches in the league, he will be in charge of maximizing the potential that the Steelers have on their offensive line, and the players are excited to have him.
Kelvin Beachum spoke glowingly of new OL coach Mike Munchak. You can tell that he's going to make a difference just b/c respect factor.— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) April 29, 2014
But there may be no one more excited than offensive coordinator Todd Haley, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
“Really nobody was happier when Coach Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Mr. [Dan] Rooney were able to pull off getting him to come on board," Haley said of Munchak. "He’s a great teacher. He’s great at what he does, the best in the league in my opinion. He seamlessly transitioned into our staff. He's a stud.”
Munchak will focus much of his attention on installing the outside zone-blocking scheme. This should benefit Bell and the Steelers’ ground game if they are finally able to get this system up and running.
Injuries have decimated the line in recent years, and they haven’t been able to spend much time together. That is why it is important that they can make the most of their time with Munchak this summer.
In his short time coaching the Steelers, Munchak likes what he sees from what should be a starting line of Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert. This group has potential to be very, very good.
New Steelers OL coach Mike Munchak on his players: "I think we can have a special group here.''— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) May 10, 2014
As a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, offensive line coach and head coach—all for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans—Munchak commands instant respect from his players. He has also had a strong history of coaching strong offensive lines and ground games.
Over his final three years as an offensive line coach, the Titans never rushed for fewer than 1,727 yards. The Steelers haven’t achieved a total that high since 2011. Pittsburgh is ready to have a great ground game again—and protect its quarterback—and the linemen look forward to being a part of that.
"Great players want to be coached,” Haley said via Brown. “They want to be pushed to see how good they can be, and these guys are eating it up.”
Speed kills, and the Steelers added a lot of it over the past several months. It has already shown up in practices, according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Thought today's #Steelers OTA practice most up-tempo, competitive I've seen in two years. Speed, youth that have been injected were evident.— Alan Robinson (@arobinson_Trib) June 11, 2014
Brown and Wheaton are the likely starters on the outside for the Steelers, which leave Archer, Bryant and Heyward-Bey—if he makes the team—to situational roles. Regardless of how Haley uses them, all of this speed will help the Steelers develop an explosive offense.
Considering that the Steelers plan to use more of the no-huddle offense this year, they will hope to keep opposing defenses on their heels. It is a far cry from the traditional style of smashmouth football that they used to run, but it works. Get any of these players in open space and a big play is bound to happen.
That is exactly what Dick LeBeau wants to prevent on the defensive side of the ball. His defense, famously called “old and slow” by Warren Sapp, received an injection of speed. It hasn’t taken long for one key member of the offense to take notice.
“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 via The Cook and Poni Show on 93.7 The Fan.
The Steelers began this transformation last year when they drafted Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round. It continued this year with the addition of Mitchell in free agency and Shazier via the draft. LeBeau recognizes what an asset that speed can be for a defense, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
You can never have too much speed and we drafted a very fast man in Ryan. In free agency we got Mike, who is a very fast man and Lawrence (Timmons) is with us and has been with us all along. He’s a very fast man. We have speed in the secondary. I think we’re going to be fast enough to catch the ball if we can all get lined up and see where the ball is going.
Unlike the new additions to the offense, these two players will make an impact in the starting lineup. They will provide a huge boost to a defense that was susceptible to big plays last year.
Kempski (@JimmyKempski) April 27, 2014
Shazier and Mitchell will be instrumental in covering the middle of the field, but they have enough speed to make plays on the outside as well. The hope is that these two can help the Steelers get back to an aggressive, attacking style that will dictate the tempo of the offense, not the other way around.
Which new addition with speed will have the biggest impact in 2014?
As great as it is to have all of this newfound speed, the Steelers have done nothing more than acquire a nice team of sprinters. Now they must mold them into football players, fit them into schemes and get them to produce.
"I think you cover speed obviously, but it's football not a track meet," Tomlin said via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "If you get a capable football player who happens to be fast, it's an asset. Speed players that we were able to acquire in this draft fit the bill in that regard. They are football players first who happen to be extremely fast."
The results will come in time, but the Steelers have made it clear that they believe that more team speed will equate to more wins in 2014.