Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart, Analysis, X-Factors
It has been a long offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers fans, but the regular season is finally upon us. It is time to wash away the bad taste of those back-to-back 8-8 seasons as the Steelers return to their rightful perch atop the AFC North.
But has the Pittsburgh coaching staff and front office put this team in the best position to be successful? The Steelers closed out the 2013 season with a pretty clear shopping list of the positions and players that needed to be upgraded in order to be successful this season.
Let this guide be a definitive source of Steelers information and analysis to help you kick off the 2014 season the right way. We’re going to break down each positional unit's depth chart, touch on some X-factors on both sides of the football and look at the two games on the schedule that you just don’t want to miss.
It is business as usual for the Steelers' quarterback situation. Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns for his 11th season with two Super Bowl titles under his belt and coming off one of the best overall seasons of his career.
The key to this team’s success, above all else, will be the health of Roethlisberger. Every team relies on their starting quarterback, and things are no different for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is going to run the no-huddle offense, utilizing all those weapons in the passing game with his gunslinger style.
Beyond Roethlisberger, the Steelers are keeping the same two backups as last season. Veteran Bruce Gradkowski will be the primary backup, and, inexplicably, second-year quarterback Landry Jones has found his way back onto the roster.
Roethlisberger never really gets the exposure that some of the other top quarterbacks get, primarily because the stats he puts up don’t wow the fantasy football crowd. Nevertheless, this team will go as far as Roethlisberger takes them.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup: Bruce Gradkowski
Backup: Landry Jones
As the season is set to start, it appears that the Steelers are going to be able to operate this season without any disruption. Le’Veon Bell returns after a very successful rookie campaign where he amassed 1,259 yards from scrimmage.
The Steelers front office has also done a nice job filling the depth chart behind Bell with much greater talent than he had in 2013. LeGarrette Blount comes in with 2,711 career rushing yards and an impressive 4.7 yards-per-carry average. Blount will be a great complementary back with Bell.
As exciting as Bell and Blount are, it is rookie Dri Archer that is the one to really get up for as the season begins. Archer has flashed some amazing speed and agility, albeit largely in the passing game. It is unclear just how many carries Archer will get as a traditional back, but he will see a handful of touches per game.
Pittsburgh is one of a diminishing number of teams who still carry a fullback on the roster. Will Johnson is a nice lead-blocking fullback and can line up in the backfield or as an in-line blocker.
Overall, the talent among this group is very good. How successful they will be will depend as much on the play of the offensive line as anything else.
Starter: Le’Veon Bell
Backup: LeGarrette Blount
Backup: Dri Archer
Fullback: Will Johnson
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Other than starting wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller, the actual order of when these players will see the field is very much up in the air.
The official depth chart lists Markus Wheaton as the starter at wide receiver opposite Brown. However, what the preseason has show is that while the Steelers have several talented wideouts to consider, none have set themselves apart as that other starter.
This isn’t unlike last season when it varied from week-to-week whether Emmanuel Sanders or Jerricho Cotchery was Roethlisberger’s second-favorite target. This season could be just as crowded as Wheaton, Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant will all make a case for catches.
At tight end, backup Matt Spaeth will be the guy opposite Miller when the Steelers go with a second tight end. However, when it comes to catching the football, Miller is Roethlisberger’s favorite security blanket in the passing game.
Starter: Antonio Brown
Starter: Markus Wheaton
Backups: Lance Moore, Justin Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant
Starter: Heath Miller
Backups: Matt Spaeth, Michael Palmer
The starting offensive line has been locked in place for some time, so there were no surprises when the final cuts came down. The Steelers need to put together a group that can not only protect Roethlisberger, but also improve the efficiency of a struggling run game.
In 2013, the Steelers were only able to muster 3.4 yards per carry. The burden of improving that falls squarely on this group. Beyond the starters, the Steelers were studious in selecting young players who can help at multiple positions.
Pittsburgh chose to keep nine offensive linemen in a sort of worst-case scenario situation. Injuries in the NFL are devastating and can come in bunches. Keeping an extra offensive lineman on the roster is a smart move.
Starter (LT): Kelvin Beachum
Starter (LG): Ramon Foster
Starter (C): Maurkice Pouncey
Starter (RG): David DeCastro
Starter (RT): Marcus Gilbert
Backups: Cody Wallace, Wesley Johnson, Chris Hubbard, Mike Adams
There was significant turnover along the Steelers’ three-man defensive line. Pittsburgh runs a base 3-4 defense, which requires a specific skill set to play up front.
The Steelers chose to keep six defensive linemen, and it is a rather diverse group. One big surprise is that Pittsburgh has listed rookie Stephon Tuitt as the starting right defensive end opposite of Cameron Heyward. This relegates veterans Cam Thomas and Brett Keisel to rotational duty as backups.
Pittsburgh also kept rookie defensive tackle Daniel McCullers as the backup nose tackle to Steve McLendon. McCullers is a humongous human being at 6’7” and 352 pounds, and he needs to stay around to add some beef to the defensive front.
Starters: Cameron Heyward (LDE), Stephon Tuitt (RDE), Steve McLendon (NT)
Backups: Cam Thomas (DE/DT), Brett Keisel (DE), Daniel McCullers (DT)
The Steelers have opted to keep eight linebackers, five of which are designated as inside linebackers. This really has two different meanings. First, it means that this team’s depth really is at inside linebacker. It also means that this group is seriously lacking depth at outside linebacker.
Pittsburgh’s linebackers across the board are a bit undersized and we have to hope that they will be able to hold up all season. The lack of depth on the outside also means Pittsburgh will need to get creative when it comes to rushing the passer from multiple positions.
Overall, this is a fast, athletic group who needs the defensive line to be big and strong so they aren’t having to constantly fight off offensive linemen when getting to the football.
Starters: Jason Worilds (LOLB), Jarvis Jones (ROLB), Ryan Shazier (LILB), Lawrence Timmons (RILB)
Backups: Vince Williams (ILB), Terence Garvin (ILB), Sean Spence (ILB), Arthur Moats (OLB)
Pittsburgh is entering the season with six cornerbacks on the final 53-man roster. This remains a position of weakness, and so the onus will be on veterans Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay to be the last line of defense in the passing game.
This group is solid, but not spectacular. In particular, Allen is going to have his work cut out for him, as he will be matched up with the opposition’s best wideout most weeks.
Beyond these three, there are mostly role players and special teams types. Antwon Blake will probably be the dime cornerback if safety Shamarko Thomas isn’t in there, leaving Brice McCain and B.W. Webb to play special teams.
Starters: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen
Nickel (slot): William Gay
Dime: Antwon Blake
Backups: Brice McCain, B.W. Webb
The Steelers have chosen to hold on to five safeties to start the year. This was likely due to the fact that safety Shamarko Thomas can also step in and play cornerback if needed.
The starters will be Troy Polamalu at strong safety and Mike Mitchell at free safety. Behind them, Thomas, Robert Golden and Will Allen provide some interesting depth. The one theme across the board among this group is a lack of long speed. This is the last line of defense, and they simply cannot allow an abundance of long plays.
It is hard to say how effective Polamalu will be this year, but if Thomas is needed as a cornerback in sub-packages, it could fall on Golden to make a big leap in a hurry. Overall, this group is going to be pushed hard all year, and they need to come up big.
Starters: Troy Polamalu (SS), Mike Mitchell (FS)
Backups: Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden, Will Allen
Nothing “special” here to report. Kicker Shaun Suisham will once again hold down the kicking duties. Last season, Suisham was one of the most effective kickers in the league. Suisham hit on 30 of 32 attempts, with both misses coming in one game against the New England Patriots.
It is hard to think Suisham can match last season’s 93.8 percent accuracy, but he’ll still be great. The bad news in this whole thing is, as of now, the Steelers are going to start the season with punter Brad Wing.
Wing has been terribly inconsistent this preseason, so I won’t be shocked if Pittsburgh doesn’t at least entertain bringing in a free-agent punter or two just in case. Special teams hasn't been up to par for some time, and in some aspects, that doesn't look to be changing.
X-Factor on Offense: Lance Moore, WR
The Steelers are still looking for a wide receiver that Roethlisberger can count on opposite Antonio Brown. Markus Wheaton looks the part at times, but as we’ve all seen over the years, you need to get the confidence of Big Ben before he’ll find ways to get you the football.
Last season, Roethlisberger developed a nice chemistry with veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery to the tune of 46 receptions, 10 of which went for touchdowns, in only six starts. With the rest of the wide receiver depth chart composed primarily of youth and inexperience, Moore could find himself becoming that trusted red-zone target for Roethlisberger that Cotchery was last year.
X-Factor on Defense: Jarvis Jones, LB
It is far too soon to deem second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones a bust. However, no one can say that Jones’ rookie year went according to script. After racking up 14.5 sacks in 2012 at the University of Georgia, Jones only mustered a single sack in 14 games, which included eight starts.
There are really two things that highlight just how important Jones is this season. First, he showed enough talent to be a first-round pick in 2013, so he needs to play like it. The whole notion that the Steelers defense is too complex doesn’t hold water at this point. Jones knows his job; it’s time for him to do it.
Second, and more important, is that this Steelers defense is thin at outside linebacker. Jason Worilds will start opposite Jones, but the only other true outside linebacker on the roster is Arthur Moats. This means fewer plays off and higher expectations. If Jones can take that next step, he could be the key to this entire defense’s success.
2 Games to Watch
There are two games I have circled on the schedule as pivotal for the team’s success. Both games come after the Steelers' bye in Week 12. I have the Steelers at 6-5 going into the bye week, and that matters for this.
Nov. 30 vs. New Orleans Saints
Coming out of the bye, the Steelers welcome the New Orleans Saints to town in a nonconference matchup with playoff implications. The Saints are going to be in a playoff battle of their own in the NFC South.
The Saints are going to head into Heinz Field throwing it all over the field. By then, we will know if this Pittsburgh secondary are contenders or pretenders. These defensive backs are going to run the gauntlet of top wide receivers this season. With an extra week to prepare, you’d hope they would be ready for the high-powered passing attack of New Orleans.
Dec. 28 vs. Cincinnati Bengals
The other game on the schedule that could be the most significant is the season finale at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. The smartest thing the league ever did was making that final regular-season game a division game. It gives nearly every team in the league something to play for right up until the end, even if it’s just to rain on another team’s parade.
The Bengals are the other major player in the AFC North, so unless either they or the Steelers fall flat early in the year, this game could have huge playoff implications. This game, like so many others this season, will be a huge test for cornerback Cortez Allen, who is going to have a trial by fire against some of the real elite wideouts in the league.