2014 Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers
In 2013 the Steelers started their season 0-4, the worst start to a season for the Black and Gold in the Mike Tomlin era. Both the offense and defense were culpable; Ben Roethlisberger’s turnovers increased from the previous year, the running game failed to get going in a few games, and the defense wasn’t the same imposing Steelers defense that we’d been accustomed to seeing (and they failed to generate a single turnover in that opening four game losing stretch).
Despite finishing with a 6-2 record in the final eight games (including thrashing the AFC North Champion Bengals at home), Pittsburgh finished with an 8-8 record for the second consecutive year. There are some changes, both good and bad for 2014. They lost two of their most productive wide receivers, but also jettisoned some respectable but aging talent on the defensive side of the ball. Here’s a deeper look at some factors that will affect the Steelers’ 2014 campaign.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Cameron Heyward
The Steelers 2011 first round selection, defensive end Cameron Heyward rarely sniffed a starters’ amount of snaps in his first two years. Then, after the Week 5 bye last season, he was rarely off the field, and responded with the second highest pass rushing grade on Pittsburgh’s defense (+7.6). He especially got after Tom Brady in what was otherwise an embarrassing defensive display from the Steelers in Week 9. While he’ll hope to do a lot better in run defense this season, the Steelers need a pass rushing threat from the interior line, and it seems they have it with Heyward.
2. Antonio Brown
In his first season as the true No. 1 WR, Antonio Brown did not disappoint. He earned the highest ‘pass’ grade among his position, caught the second most catches (110), compiled the second most yards (1,498), had the third most yards after catch (657), and caught eight TDs. He also forced the third most missed tackles among his peers. He also scored on a punt return. There’s no doubt this man is a star.
3. Troy Healthy Again
While Troy Polamalu certainly isn’t getting younger, last season was a good sign for his ongoing career. After missing seven games in 2012, he played in all contests last year. The familiar veteran was rarely a liability and consistently made plays for the Steelers. That includes his impeccably timed tackle for a loss on Jake Locker in the opener and his pick-six against the Dolphins, not to mention another pick, six passes defended and a career-high five forced fumbles. If Troy can play like this again this season, Steelers defense would receive a large boost.
4. Le’Veon Bell
The Steelers have been looking for a clear No. 1 running back and they found it in 2013 second round pick Le’Veon Bell. Bell proved to be very capable at moving the chains on the ground and through the air. He also scored eight TDs, it would have been nine but for a wicked knocking-off-helmet-hit by Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw. After relying on LaRod Stephens-Howling (season ended after 15 snaps), Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, and Cowboys castoff Felix Jones for the first three games in 2012 (all losses), Bell breathed a much need spark of life to the offense. There is no reason to expect him to not produce this year.
5. Addition by Subtraction
Part of the problem with the Steelers defense in recent years has been their reliance on aging veterans who performed well in the past. They moved on from NT Casey Hampton after 2012 to NT Steve McLendon, and went from -3.8 run defense grade to a +2.7 run defense grade from the starting NT position. Now they’ve also cut ties with the once very productive Larry Foote (only played 59 snaps last year) former 2009 first round bust Ziggy Hood, and Ryan Clark. Whether younger guys like Heyward, Cortez Allen, Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas can bring the Steelers defense back to glory is yet to be determined, but at least this defense is getting an injection of youth.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Ike Taylor
The Steelers No. 1 cornerback, the long-tenured Ike Taylor, had a terrible 2013 campaign. He played in every game (he played in 12 in 2012) and earned a shocking nine red graded coverage performances. Quarterbacks targeting Taylor earned a cumulative 110.6 QBR, and he was unable to take advantage of 113 targets, hauling in no picks while dropping several. He also drew six penalties; three pass interference flags and three holding flags (including both on back-to-back plays vs. Detroit). With a bigger emphasis on defensive back penalties down the field this year, can he rebound in 2013?
2. WR depth?
The Steelers lost veteran wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in the offseason and that duo combined for 16 of Ben’s 28 passing touchdowns last season. Replacing them will be second year third-round pick Markus Wheaton (-2.6 on 161 snaps last year), 2012 undrafted free agent Derek Moye (-0.6 on 53 snaps though he did beat Bengals cornerback Leon Hall for a TD in Week 2), rookie fourth round pick Martavis Bryant, and ex-Saint Lance Moore (-0.8 on 452 snaps). It will be interesting to see how Ben fares with this mostly inexperienced group.
While the interior remains acceptable for the moment (seems like every year a Steelers offensive lineman goes down), the two outside protectors for Pittsburgh’s projected starting line are still suspect. Third-year former seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum has been asked to play all over the line in his first two years, but he now seems to have cemented the starting left tackle spot. Given this position from Week 6 and on last year, Beachum was not an All-Pro but did only have two terrible games (vs. Raiders and Patriots in consecutive weeks). While he’s far from proven, he is less concerning than his counterpart, right tackle Marcus Gilbert, a 2011 second round pick who’s been a mainstay at RT on an otherwise often-shifting offensive line. Problem is, after only appearing in 6 games the previous season, he struggled last year (he was tied for third among offensive tackles in sacks given up). There’s also 2012 second round pick Mike Adams, last seen playing right tackle deep into their first preseason game.
4. Outside Linebacker
Lamarr Woodley has had question marks surrounding him for his last few seasons with Pittsburgh, and only appeared in 11 games last season. Nonetheless, he was the highest graded pass rusher on this unit last year, and he’s gone now. Replacing him will be former 2010 second round pick Jason Worilds and 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones. Worilds had a breakout 2013 campaign, leading all 3-4 OLBs in QB hits while also accumulating eight sacks, but can he continue that production going forward? Meanwhile, Jones disappointed in his rookie campaign, only putting opposing QBs on the ground three times in 308 blitzes (he did have 25 hurries and three batted passes). More concerning is that two of his worst performances in terms of rushing the passer came in the last five games with Pittsburgh desperately trying to stay in the playoff hunt. Can these two provide what Dick LeBeau needs in his famed scheme?
5. Big Ben Turnover Prone?
In 2013, Roethlisberger started all 16 regular season games for the first time since 2008, their last Championship season. He also threw two more TD passes than he did the year before. However, his turnover numbers also increased – nine fumbles, five which were recovered by the opposing defense (one returned by Julius Peppers for a TD), and 14 interceptions, six more than the previous year. With fewer proven targets this year, can Ben protect the ball better?
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