Thursday, January 12, 2012

Requiem for a Season: 2011 Steelers Offense

What started as a frenetic end to the summer where a last-minute deal was reached on a collective bargaining agreement that enabled the 2012 NFL season to take place ended suddenly for Steelers fans on a cold Sunday night in Denver. Over the summer, we were told that the Steelers experience and depth would enable them to be successful in a season where there were no OTAs and an abbreviated training camp. As it was, the season started with us getting gashed on the ground by Baltimore and Houston, battling through injuries to our world class pass rushers, and ended with giving up 316 yards to Tim Tebow, of all people.


It seems to be a right of passage for the Steelers to battle through a season with an injured Ben Roethlisberger. Is this a function of Big Ben's play or a porous offensive line that has allowed Ben to be sacked 40+ times every year of his career. Ben had a heck of a season and put forth a gutsy effort in the playoffs on what amounted to one leg. Once again, the Steelers saw one of their backup quarterbacks injured in the preseason when Byron Leftwich went down with a broken arm. Charlie Batch played well and led us to a victory against St. Louis. Questions will be asked all offseason if the Steelers should've started Batch against San Francisco and Cleveland. Dennis Dixon didn't see the field during the regular season and will be an unrestricted free agent.

Pending Free Agents: Charlie Batch (UFA), Byron Leftwich (UFA), Dennis Dixon (UFA)

The Offseason: With Ben locked up in a long term contract, the Steelers will likely re-sign Leftwich to be Ben's backup. As we saw throughout the league this year, the importance of a backup quarterback is paramount to a team's success. Charlie Batch is reaching the end of his career and is a candidate for retirement. If he decides not to retire, it's unlikely he'll be in high demand in the free agent market and we could bring him back for 2012. Dennis Dixon was a free agent last year as well and didn't garner much interest from teams around the league. Things may be different this time around, but with Dixon's lack of game experience, it's unlikely anyone would offer him a big contract. If all 3 backups depart for some reason, the Steelers will likely look for a veteran backup to add to the roster and possibly a young developmental project for their #3 QB.

Running Backs

We entered camp with one of the deepest set of backs we had seen in years with a returning 1000-yard rusher (Mendenhall), a short-yardage specialist (Redzone Redman), a 3rd down back (Moore), a one-cut runner that piled up a ton of yards in college (Dwyer), a rookie that with a big upside (Batch), and an undrafted free agent who had been the Big 10 offensive player of the year (Clay). Shockingly, we ended the season with three of them (Mendenhall, Dwyer, Batch) on IR and Mewelde Moore scratched with an MCL injury. Even though Mendenhall didn't have the most productive year in terms of yardage, he ran as hard as we've ever seen him run and hit the holes with authority. The shame for Rashard is that he was just coming into his own as a back and now will have to go through the arduous process of recovering from an ACL injury. Isaac Redman is an exclusive rights free agent and you'd better believe he will be back next season after having the best game of his career against Denver in the playoffs. Mewelde Moore is a solid veteran presence in the backfield but wasn't as effective this season as he had been in the past. Jonathan Dwyer showed flashes of potential this year, including a big 75-yard run against Tennessee but was ultimately lost with a broken foot. Redman was easily their best pass-blocking back and saved Ben's ass a few times on A-gap blitzes. John Clay has a big frame but is still a little raw. He definitely has potential as a developmental player.

Pending Free Agents: Isaac Redman (ER)

The Offseason: Much of the offseason will depend on Mendenhall's recovery from ACL surgery. With Baron Batch's recovery timeline in mind as well (he tore his ACL in camp, so he'll be further along than Rashard by August) the Steelers may look to the draft to add some depth at the RB position. If Mendenhall progresses quickly, the Steelers may be able to skirt by with the same stable of backs, though history has shown that it usually takes almost a year to fully recover from an ACL injury. Assuming Jonathan Dwyer can also fully recover we may start the season with Redman, Moore and Dwyer as our top three backs if Mendenhall is still limited. Not a horrible situation, but you can see why the Steelers might look to add another back via free agency or the draft.

Wide Receivers

Antonio Brown was the team MVP, and deservedly so. Of his 69 receptions, 28 were on 3rd down and 14 were on 3rd down with 9+ yards to go. All Brown did all season was make big plays. Mike Wallace started the season on fire then tapered off after Ben's first foot injury when the Steelers moved to a shorter passing game that had him running more slants and crossing patterns. Wallace's speed was still a factor and he was able to turn some short throws into big gains. The weirdest stat of the season probably comes from Hines Ward. In his pursuit of 1,000 catches he went through stretches where the Steelers seemed to completely ignore him then some games where they tried to rack up catches. Even though Hines seemed to be an afterthought for Bruce Arians, the Steelers were 9-1 in games when he had 3+ catches. In games where Hines had 2 catches or less the Steelers were 2-4, including the losses to San Francisco, Houston, and Denver. Hines' best game of the season was against Tennessee where he had 7 catches. Interestingly enough, that was also the Steelers highest scoring game of the season as they put up 38 against the Titans. After breaking his foot in the Super Bowl, Emmanuel Sanders battled through injuries this season but came up with some big catches against Denver. Sanders has a ton of talent and is the slot receiver of the future. Jerricho Cotchery was a solid free agent acquisition and he made some big plays for this team down the stretch as he saw his role increased in light of Hines Ward's diminished playing time.

Pending Free Agents: Mike Wallace (RFA), Jerricho Cotchery (UFA)

The Offseason: Wallace is the biggest free agent decision this team has to make moving forward. He is the clear #1 receiver on the team and is in line for a big contract. Since he is a restricted free agent, the Steelers will have the right to match any offer he would get from another team if they can't come to a contract agreement before the free agency deadline. Given the way Hines was utilized down the stretch, I can't see him back on the team next year. This isn't a knock against Hines or what he has done for us over the last 14 years. He is arguably the best receiver to ever strap on a Steelers helmet and he battled his heart out every play. That said, he seemed to be excluded from the game plans that the coaching staff put together down the stretch. If you ask me, Hines can still make plays in this league, but the coaches unwillingness to use him makes me think he'll either retire or get cut before training camp next year. Assuming Wallace is re-signed, the Steelers should head into camp with a clear 1-2-3 combo of Wallace-Brown-Sanders. Cotchery is a great fit for what the Steelers do offensively but he will probably test the free agent market as the Steelers won't offer him much money to come back. Don't be surprised if the Steelers pick a receiver in the middle rounds of the draft to add some depth to this unit.

Tight Ends

Weslye Saunders was the "camp phenom" after being the only undrafted free agent to make the 53-man roster. Saunders orchestrated one of the most athletic plays by anyone not named "Antonio Brown" after making a whirling catch in the back of the end zone against Kansas City. Heath Miller was once again his solid, consistent self. Heath exemplifies the "all-around tight end" model as he excells in both blocking and receiving. One disturbing trend that we saw this year was Heath being utilized in the passing game during the first quarter of games then disappearing down the stretch. The Steelers went to him early and often against New England and Denver then pretty much ignored him the rest of the game. Since it's fresh in your mind, you may ask about the missed 3rd down pass in the 4th quarter against Denver when Heath was triple-covered and Antonio Brown was running open. Yes they threw to Heath, but it's never advisable to throw in to triple coverage. David Johnson is the kind of player that Bruce Arians loves because he can fill he "H-back" role as a fullback and blocking tight end. Johnson doesn't have the best hands and dropped multiple passes this year. This was probably the only group on the team that didn't sustain a significant injury all season.

Pending Free Agents: David Johnson (RFA)

The Offseason: Miller and Saunders make a solid 1-2 punch at tight end and it should be fun to watch Weslye develop. For a guy who looked a little timid blocking early in camp, Saunders really picked it up towards the end of the year and honed his blocking skills. The Steelers will likely tender David Johnson with a low-ball offer. Johnson probably won't get many looks from other teams and will probably re-sign. It's unlikely the Steelers will add a tight end in free agency and if Johnson (a former 7th round pick) does depart, they'll probably pick one up towards the tail end of the draft. In all likelihood, this will be the same unit in 2012 that it was in 2011.

Offensive Line

The Steelers first snap of 2012 saw Jonathan Scott, Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky, and Willie Colon line up in front of Big Ben. That play was a 9-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall in Baltimore. The last snap of the year, fittingly a sack, saw Jonathan Scott, Chris Kemoeatu, Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster, and Marcus Gilbert line up. In between it seemed like every combination under the sun of Max Starks, Kemoeatu, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert, and Scott saw playing time. At one point we had started 7 different line combinations through 7 games. The re-signing of Max Starks was huge for the left side of the line after J-Scott did his best revolving door impression against Dwight Freeney in Week 3. While this group clearly has it's holes (and believe me, they are big ones), you have to like the way the right half of the line played this year. After the RG free-for-all that took place in camp, Ramon Foster landed the gig for the second consecutive year and played a solid season. He got beat at times, but for an undrafted free agent, the guy has started 26 games over his 3-year career. Maurkice Pouncey is going to be a perennial Pro Bowler at center and rookie Marcus Gilbert stepped in nicely for the injured Willie Colon at RT.

Pending Free Agents: Max Starks (UFA), Trai Essex (UFA), Doug Legursky (RFA), Ramon Foster (RFA)

The Offseason: Max Starks was signed to a 1-year veteran minimum deal and depending on his health (he went down in the Denver game with a knee injury) probably won't return next year. The Steelers threw big money at Willie Colon during the last offseason which pretty much ensures he will be around for at least another year. Colon can't play LT which means that Marcus Gilbert will probably flip sides and move over to the left. After getting benched this year and towing a huge cap number around, Chris Kemoeatu is likely near the top of the cut list this offseason. Doug Legursky played all 3 positions on the interior of the line and makes for a good swing player. I think at one point or another this year, Trai Essex played all 5 positions on the line. Essex isn't good enough to get a lot of attention in the free agent market, but he's not a bad backup to have around either. Look for the Steelers to target an interior lineman - probably a LG - early in the draft.

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