Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades the Steelers Made This Offseason
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, this offseason was about as busy as any on record. This is a franchise that historically plays it close to the vest when it comes to personnel changes.
However, after two consecutive 8-8 seasons, the coaching staff and front office recognize that maintaining the status quo was not going to work. The window for success with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback is starting to close, so even though Pittsburgh wants to rebuild, it must do so while living firmly in the present.
Let’s break down the seven biggest upgrades the Steelers have made this offseason.
Unless specified, all player stats and data courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.
7. Additions at Wide Receiver
When the 2013 season ended, the Pittsburgh coaches understood there was a real possibility that two of their top three wide receivers would be gone. Emmanuel Sanders found his way to the Denver Broncos, and Jerricho Cotchery moved on to the Carolina Panthers.
However, a position that was thought to be a weakness going into training camp now looks to be a real strength. Second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton can finally see the front of the depth chart and hopes to make the most of it. Pittsburgh also brought in veteran Lance Moore to help offer that presence Cotchery provided last season, only with much greater athletic ability.
The last, and probably more interesting of the new wide receivers is rookie Martavis Bryant. Bryant has a significant height advantage over the others (6’4”) and has speed very much comparable to guys like Wheaton and Antonio Brown.
This is a unit that could blow the top off of opposing defenses. In 2013, the Steelers used a very controlled passing game, asking wide receivers to turn short throws into long runs. This season things could definitely change.
6. A Healthy Maurkice Pouncey
One of the high points of the 2013 season was how well and banged and battered offensive line came together in the second half of the season. After struggling to find any sense of cohesion in the beginning of the year, this group led this team to a 6-2 record in the final eight games.
And to think, it did all of this without arguably its best offensive lineman. The play of reserve center Cody Wallace was admirable and should earn him a spot on the roster this season. However, a healthy return of Maurkice Pouncey means what was a great interior offensive line just got even better.
The pressure is on Pouncey to perform. After inking a five-year contract worth $44 million, expectations for the young Pro Bowl center are high. With three Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams under his belt, it is clear that having him back in the starting lineup is a huge upgrade over Wallace.
5. Ryan Shazier at Inside Linebacker
The Steelers coaches recognized that inside linebacker was a significant need prior to the 2014 NFL draft. After having a combination of Larry Foote and Vince Williams hold down the inside spot next to Lawrence Timmons, they recognized it was time for an upgrade. Williams and Foote are both solid players, but they're more role players than elite talents.
If you look up the word upgrade in the dictionary, there’s a chance that a picture of Ohio State rookie Ryan Shazier will be in there. Shazier ran an unofficial 4.36 40-yard dash at the Ohio State Pro Day and cemented his spot as the most athletic linebacker in the draft.
Although Shazier played outside in the Ohio State 4-3, he seems a natural transition to move inside. Although nothing is official, it seems that Shazier would play the “mack” inside linebacker spot, and Timmons would slide over to the “buck.” Shazier’s speed and coverage skills will allow this team to stay in base defense more and offer defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau far more opportunities to be creative in terms of pressures and coverages.
4. Mike Mitchell at Safety
At the end of the 2013 season, veteran safety Ryan Clark faced the reality that his time with the Steelers was done. It wasn’t clear exactly how Pittsburgh would move forward from Clark, but it had to get out from under the criticisms of being too old and too slow on defense.
How the Steelers chose to upgrade was to add former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell. Mitchell had been a part-time player in his first four seasons of the league, all with the Oakland Raiders. However, in a single season with the Panthers, Mitchell got a full 13 starts and played admirably at free safety.
Mitchell comes to Pittsburgh as an upgrade at free safety for a secondary that is a weak link on the defense. For one season, he is an upgrade in Clark’s old spot; however, his better fit could be as an eventual replacement for strong safety Troy Polamalu.
Even if Mitchell is somewhat out of position this year, his speed and aggression will be welcome in a secondary that lacked punch in 2013.
3. The Youth Movement on the Defensive Line
There was significant turnover along the defensive line this offseason. Out are Al Woods, Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel. In are Stephon Tuitt, Cam Thomas, Daniel McCullers and Josh Mauro.
This move fell again into the category of getting younger and more athletic. And it really works. Tuitt is a rookie with a ceiling as high as any 5-technique in the league. Thomas is a veteran with the bulk to man the nose tackle position. Rookies Mauro and McCullers are both impressive young players, and Mauro in particular looks ready to contribute right away.
I acknowledge that there are plenty of fans who want Keisel back in the fold. However, it can’t come at the expense of these other young athletic players. Yes, Keisel provides leadership, but the expectation should be that defensive end Cameron Heyward or veteran defensive tackle Steve McLendon does that. No, this group looks to be appreciably better at this point, and there’s no reason to throw a wrench into that.
2. LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer at Running Back
It was painful to watch running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones run the football in 2013. The two of them mustered a woeful 381 rushing yards and zero touchdowns. This even includes two starts by Jones early in the season.
This put finding depth behind starter Le’Veon Bell a top offseason priority. And oh boy, did they make some moves. First, Pittsburgh went out and signed bruising speed back LeGarrette Blount.
If four seasons, Blount has topped 700 yards rushing in three of them, and in those seasons he averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
They probably could have stopped there, filled in the backfield with a vet or two and called it good. However, instead of standing pat, Pittsburgh used its third-round pick in 2014 to draft the fastest player in the draft in Dri Archer. Archer might never be a full-time running back, but as a change-of-pace, his speed and elusiveness will be welcome.
By the end of the season, no one should be shocked if this threesome isn’t among the most efficient and productive in the entire league.
1. Mike Munchak
It might seem silly to have the addition of a coach being the biggest upgrade of the offseason, but in this case, it is valid. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak brings a wealth of experience and expertise that is second to none.
As a player, Munchak was an All-Pro selection in 10 of his 12 seasons and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As an offensive line coach for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, Munchak’s offensive lines produced 12 1,000-yard rushers in 14 seasons. He got LenDale White 1,110 yards for crying out loud.
Even beyond Munchak’s experience as an elite guard and offensive line coach, it is his former head coach experience that makes him special. As for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, both have head coaching experience.
This gives them that macro look at the team that many coordinators and position coaches miss. This unique perspective is going to help Munchak manage these young talents and get the most out of their skills.