2014 Preview: Steelers hope big changes on defense pay off
JUL 07, 2014 12:10p ET
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is as excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes . . . even February. Goodbye, offseason!
Today, we continue the series with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2013: 8-8; tied for second place AFC North; one game out of playoffs
Head coach: Mike Tomlin, eighth season with Steelers (71-41)
Key departures: S Ryan Clark, WR Jerrico Cotchery, RB Jonathan Dwyer, LB Larry Foote, DE Ziggy Hood, RB Felix Jones, DE Brett Keisel, P Mat McBriar, WR Emmanuel Sanders, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, OL Fernando Velasco, LB LaMarr Woodley, NT Al Woods
Key arrivals: rookie RB Dri Archer, RB LeGarrette Blount, rookie WR Martavis Bryant, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, CB Brice McCain, S Mike Mitchell, LB Arthur Moats, WR Lance Moore, P Adam Podlesh, rookie LB Ryan Shazier, DT Cam Thomas, rookie DE Stephon Tuitt, P Brad Wing
1. Antonio Brown and who?
Last offseason, Pittsburgh had Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown and was willing to give a long-term contract to one of them. Brown ended up signing the deal and Mike Wallace left as a free agent. Brown then finished second in the league with 110 catches, accounting for 1,499 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Aside from tight end Heath Miller (58 catches for 593 yards), the secondary options at receiver became Sanders (67 for 740) and Cotchery (46 for 602).
Now the Steelers are trying to replace Sanders and Cotchery. Sanders cashed in during free agency by signing with the Denver Broncos. Cotchery wasn't retained. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will need more than Brown and Miller to build on the ever-growing Pittsburgh passing attack.
The Steelers signed Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey in free agency as veteran options. Markus Wheaton was a third-round draft choice last season. Pittsburgh then took Martavis Bryant out of Clemson in the fourth round of this year's draft. There are options, but few certainties.
Moore thrived in the New Orleans Saints' system with quarterback Drew Brees spreading the ball around. He had a career-high 1,041 yards two years ago and had three seasons of at least 65 catches, before slipping to 37 catches for 457 yards last year. Heyward-Bey never lived up to being the seventh-overall pick in the 2009 draft by the Oakland Raiders, mostly plagued by drops. In one season with Indianapolis last year, Heyward-Bey had just 29 catches for 309 yards.
The Steelers enter training camp hoping the potential in Wheaton and Bryant translates on the field. Wheaton fits the mold of recent Pittsburgh receivers, short and quick. He had only six catches for 64 yards in 12 games as rookie, though. Rookie wide receivers struggling and taking time to adapt is nothing new in the NFL. The hope is a year of seasoning proves beneficial and maybe Wheaton can step into a starting role. Bryant offers something the rest of the receivers don't: height. At 6-foot-4, Bryant is a big target and provided a deep threat at Clemson last year.
2. Are the youngsters on defense ready?
Defense has long been a tradition in Pittsburgh and it's been through many different looks over the years. The next wave of Steelers defenders dot the lineup, providing it can live up to the stars of the past. After slipping to 13th in total defense last year, Pittsburgh will hope several young players can step forward to return the defense to its glory years -- top-10 units for 13 straight seasons before 2013.
The secondary still features 33-year-old Troy Polamalu and 34-year-old Ike Taylor. The majority of the changes have come in the front-seven, which could see four new starters. Shazier, a first-round pick out of Ohio State, will be given every chance to win a starting spot at linebacker. Shazier is speedy and versatile, but projects inside in the Steelers' 3-4 defense.
Pittsburgh also drafted Tuitt, a defensive end, in the second round out of Notre Dame, as well as big nose tackle Daniel McCullers and linebacker Jordan Zumwalt in the sixth round. Neither is expected to start, but could grow into roles. McCullers, 6-foot-7 and 348 pounds out of Tennessee, has the talent to be a force as a 3-4 nose tackle, but has been inconsistent.
The defensive line is led by Cameron Heyward, a 2011 first-rounder who tied for second on the team with five sacks last year. Thomas, 28, was signed away from San Diego and has the inside track to start on the line. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, 28, is the veteran at linebacker. Jason Worilds, 26, led the team with eight sacks last season while starting 11 games. He'll be asked to step in as a full-time starter to replace Woodley.
Pittsburgh needs Jarvis Jones, last year's first-round pick out of Georgia, to live up to his potential as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Jones did start eight games last year, but largely struggled with 30 tackles and just one sack.
3. How will Dri Archer be used?
Maybe one of the most surprising picks of the draft, and definitely one of the buzziest prospects coming in was Archer from Kent State. Archer's name really popped up after he had the fastest 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine, crossing the line in a scorching 4.26 seconds.
Archer is also just 5-foot-8 and 173 pounds, which likely means Pittsburgh will pick its spots with the speedy playmaker. The Steelers have Le'Veon Bell, a second-round pick last year, as the starting running back and added tough-running LeGarrette Blount in free agency. Drafting Archer in the third round adds another back to the mix.
Archer should have a chance to impact games as a returner, runner and receiver out of the backfield. Archer had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last year and is likely the top option as kickoff returner, after Jones and Sanders were the team's top kickoff returners last year. Bell caught 45 passes last year, but Archer is too dangerous to not use and could be a threat on passing downs, whether out of the backfield or maybe from the slot.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is back despite a bit of criticism. It will be up to Haley to utilize Archer and make use of a second-day pick. Surely Pittsburgh has plans for him. But even Archer isn't sure how he will be used, but he told reporters recently that he expects it will a "big role," according to the Akron Beacon Journal.
Outside linebacker Jason Worilds
Worilds could be the next great outside linebacker in Steelers history after developing slowly over four NFL seasons. Worilds was a second-round pick in 2010 out of Virginia Tech and was a part-time starter while LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were still doing their thing for Pittsburgh.
With Harrison in Cincinnati last year, Worilds broke through for a career-high 11 starts in 15 games and essentially took over as the top pass-rushing linebacker from Woodley. Worilds set a career-high with eight sacks and was three ahead of Woodley and Heyward for the team lead. Worilds added 63 tackles, which was tied for fourth on the team and also forced two fumbles.
What Worilds did in the second half of the season should really make the Steelers feel like they have an elite pass rusher. Pittsburgh was tied for 24th in the NFL last season with just 34 sacks as a team. Before missing the Week 17 game, Worilds had seven sacks over an eight-game stretch. He had 10 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble at Baltimore in Week 13.
The Steelers wanted to make sure they didn't lose Worilds, who was set to become a free agent. Pittsburgh tagged Worilds as a transition player, giving the budding linebacker a one-year, $9.754 million contract. The two sides haven't been able to agree on a long-term extension during the summer, though.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Steelers haven't been afraid of change this offseason, making big changes along the defense and being forced into moves at receiver. The young players will be expected to step up. But this is a team that was buried last year and sat 0-4 after a loss to the previously winless Minnesota Vikings in London.
The offense started to click as Bell returned after missing the season's first three games, the secondary receivers found chemistry with Roethlisberger and the offensive line started to settle. After losing center Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh found a capable starter in Velasco. Kelvin Beachum finally settled down the left tackle spot in taking the job away from Mike Adams. The offense ended up finishing 16th in the league with an average of 23.7 points per game, and the defense allowed 23.1 points per game, to rank 14th in the league.
The recovery was slow. Pittsburgh won its first game after the bye following the return from London, a not-very-pretty, 19-6 win at the New York Jets. After beating Baltimore, the Steelers then lost at Oakland and allowed 55 points in a loss to the New England Patriots.
But as the offensive line came together, Bell added a spark to the running game and the defense finally started to create some turnovers. Pittsburgh won six of its last eight games and beat playoff teams in Cincinnati and Green Bay in back-to-back games.
The Steelers should feel they can continue their late-season play, despite the turnovers. Roethlisberger is still around and always gives the offense a chance to score points. Polamalu is a difference-maker on defense and played a full 16 games for just the second time in the past five seasons. He might not be the force he was when he was younger, but he can make others around him better, just like Roethlisberger. The team also returns its four offensive linemen around Pouncey, who is back after playing just three games.
REASON FOR PANIC
Age in the secondary. Polamalu had another strong season, but how many years can he be counted on? Plus, Ike Taylor showed his age last season. The Steelers did nothing to shore up an aging, ineffective secondary besides add McCain, a reserve cornerback who started just four games with Houston last year and was a cap casualty. Clark signed with the Washington Redskins and was replaced by Mike Mitchell, signed from Carolina.
Many expected the secondary to be a focus in the draft, primarily at cornerback, but instead Pittsburgh went with help for the front seven in Shazier and Tuitt. The lone cornerback drafted was Shaquille Richardson in the fifth round out of Arizona, who is more of a project after making a name for himself at his Pro Day.
Cortez Allen, 25, is an intriguing player, but has only 10 starts in three seasons. The third cornerback is likely William Gay, 29, who returned to Pittsburgh last season after one year in Arizona. In 112 NFL games, Gay has six interceptions. The Steelers need a renaissance from Taylor to lead the team's cornerbacks.
Pittsburgh returns nearly the same cast from last year, which tied for the third-fewest interceptions in the league with 10. The Steelers will plan on getting more of a pass rush this season -- they were tied for the sixth-fewest sacks -- to hopefully have an impact on the secondary. Timmons, Clark, Polamalu and Allen all tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Taylor had zero interceptions.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
A defensive overhaul that began in the 2013 offseason resumed with the departure of five more veterans and the first-round selection of a linebacker (Ohio State's Ryan Shazier) for the second straight year. The offense will again emphasize a rediscovered power running game behind bruisers Le'Veon Bell and newcomer LeGarrette Blount as Pittsburgh continues the transition away from being a pass-first team under quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. A blown officiating call in the Week 17 game between Kansas City and San Diego likely kept Pittsburgh from making the playoffs. The Steelers, though, need to take control of their own destiny in 2014 by avoiding another 0-4 start. Prediction: 9-7.
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