Saturday, September 6, 2014

2014 Pittsburgh Steelers Season Preview

The 2014 Season is upon us. In the next week, the Steelers will play two football games against two of our most hated rivals. The Steelers have gotten off to slow starts in each of the last 3 seasons. There was the 0-4 start in 2013 which was preceeded by a 1-2 start to 2012 and a 2-2 start to 2011. The Steelers have the opportunity to get out of the gates fast and the September schedule sets up very well with two division games to start followed by a Sunday night game in Carolina and a date with the improved Tampa Bay Bucs at home. The Steelers will pick up the 2014 season right where the left off in 2013: at Heinz Field, against the Cleveland Browns. 2013 ended on a wing and a prayer that the Chiefs JV team could beat the Chargers. If the refs could count to 7 or if Ryan Succop could make a 41-yard field goal, maybe they would have. But they did not, and the Steelers sat at home in January for the second straight season.

Dramatis Personae

Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones

The principle of diminishing returns is abundantly evident in the Steelers quarterback depth chart. Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to pass Terry Bradshaw as the winningest quarterback in Steelers history (or the losingest quarterback in Steelers history). It's hard to believe this will be Ben's 10th year in the league, but he has taken us to the top of the mountain twice and almost to the summit a third time. Ben is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and the Steelers are fully capable of making a playoff run this season with Ben under center. Ben has been incredibly good in crunch time throughout his career and needs just 1 Game Winning Drive this season to move into the Top 10 all time. Behind Ben is a bit of a different story. Bruce Gradkowski has been a journeyman QB and has won a few games here and there in his career but isn't a guy like Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch that was capable of starting multiple games and keeping the team on track. If Landry Jones has to play a snap this season, just pack it in until 2015.

Running Backs
Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer, Will Johnson (FB)

The Doobie Brothers made an insanely dumb decision before the Eagles preseason game. Hopefully they can put it behind them on the football field because the Steelers are going to rely heavily on Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount this season. Bell enters his second year and seems poised to get the ball 20-25 times a game, whether that is running the ball or targets in the passing game. Bell has a great jump-cut that allows him to make something out of nothing better than any back we've had since Amos Zereoue. Blount is the hammer this team has been missing to add the punch of nastiness to the running game. He's the closest thing we've seen to a "3 yards and a cloud of dust" runner in quite some time. The Steelers used their 3rd round pick on Dri Archer who figures to see time in the return game as well as a change-of-pace back. Archer showed in the preseason that he is a big play threat any time he gets the ball in his hands and the Steelers will have to do a better job of getting Archer the ball than they did with Chris Rainey. The fourth man in the group, FB Will Johnson, has shown he can be a capable receiver, a solid blocker and can carry the rock in an emergency.

Tight Ends
Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Michael Palmer

Heath Miller appears to be fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered at the end of the 2012 season which limited him at the beginning of 2013. Matt Spaeth also missed the first eight games of 2013. The Steelers have a full complement of healthy tight ends heading into 2014, which should provide a massive improvement in both the running and the passing game. Michael Palmer played mostly on special teams last year and is a journeyman veteran who is a capable blocker if he has to play in the regular offense.

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown has emerged as one of the best receivers in the league and is on pace to be one of the best receivers in Steelers history. All Antonio Brown Does Is Make Big Plays. Markus Wheaton was drafted in the 3rd round last year and didn't play much as a rookie because of a broken finger. He has the foot speed and the route-running ability to be successful as the #2 receiver in this offense. This should be a breakout year for him and the Steelers will look to utilize his speed on the edge in reverses, short crosses and WR screens. The biggest addition on offense during the offseason was Lance Moore, who was signed from the Saints to play in the slot. Darrius Heyward-Bey was brought in as a bit of an afterthought, but did enough in preseason to make the team and will contribute on special teams. Justin Brown made the team after spending his rookie year on the practice squad and rookie Martavis Bryant will likely be inactive for the first few games as he recovers from a shoulder injury.

Offensive Line
Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, Kelvin Beachum, Mike Adams, Cody Wallace, Chris Hubbard, Wesley Johnson

The Steelers opened up the bank for the offensive line in the offseason, signing Maurkice Pouncey to a 5-year $44 million deal and Marcus Gilbert to a 6-year $30 million deal. With the addition of Hall of Famer Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach, this unit is primed to take a step forward this season. Gilbert was able to stay healthy for most of last season and proved to be a solid right tackle. David DeCastro came on towards the end of last season and was one of the best linemen in the division over the last 8 games. DeCastro and Pouncey are Pro Bowl-caliber linemen in the middle with Ramon Foster being a solid and consistent veteran presence. Kelvin Beachum isn't a prototypical left tackle but his technique is outstanding, enabling to hold his own in pass blocking though he still lacks some strength in run blocking. Mike Adams is the "swing" tackle in reserve but didn't have a very good preseason. Cody Wallace can play both guard and center and is the top reserve on the inside. It was a bit of a surprise that Chris Hubbard made the team over veteran Guy Whimper, but Whimper did not have a good preseason. Wesley Johnson was the Steelers 5th round pick this year and should get what amounts to a "redshirt" this season.

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, Brett Keisel, Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McCullers

The Steelers saw some turnover on the defensive line in the offseason with Ziggy Hood and Al Woods departing in free agency and Cam Thomas coming in. Cam Heyward emerged over the second half of last season as a dominating 3-4 defensive end and moves from the left side to the right side this year. At left end, there figures to be a rotation between Cam Thomas, Brett Keisel and rookie Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers will likely try to limit Keisel's snaps, particularly early in the season in an attempt to keep him fresh. In the preseason, Tuitt primarily saw time in the nickel package as one of two down linemen. Thomas will also be the primary backup at nose tackle where Steve McLendon will be the starter but isn't exactly firmly entrenched. Nose tackle is the weakest spot in the Steelers base defense, but since most teams are using sets with multiple WRs, the Steelers usually find themselves in nickel for more snaps per game than in their base defense. To combat the struggles their run defense has had when in nickel, they tested out a "big nickel" package in the preseason with Heyward, McLendon, Thomas and Keisel as the down linemen and both outside linebackers out of the game. Daniel McCullers is a mountain of a man at 6'7" 350 lbs and will likely get a "redshirt" in his rookie year.

Outside Linebackers
Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats

The Steelers opted to keep only 3 outside linebackers on their opening day roster. Jason Worilds is on a 1-year deal that came with the Transition Tag. Worilds had a great second half to last season, recording __ sacks in __ games. Worilds will benefit from having Cam Heyward play in front of him. On the other side, Jarvis Jones will be the starter and has some growing to do - both against the run and with his pass rush moves. Jones seems to have added an inside move and did play his best in the preseason when Brett Keisel was playing next to him in the 4th preseason game. Arthur Moats was brought in from Buffalo in free agency and proved himself to be a capable backup.

Inside Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Terrence Garvin

The Steelers made significant strides in the offseason to improve their inside linebacker position. In 2013, Troy Polamalu found himself playing linebacker more than safety because of the Week 1 injury to Larry Foote. Timmons is an established veteran in the middle now as he enters his 7th year and is one of the more under-rated inside linebackers in the league. First round pick Ryan Shazier made a splash in his first preseason game but took a step back against Philadelphis. He will have his work cut out for him as an every down player as NFL offenses ramp up the complexity of their attack. Vince Williams is a run-stopping thumper who contributes on Special Teams and may see time with the goal-line defense. Sean Spence seems to be fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him his first two NFL seasons and he flashed in the preseason opener against the Giants. Terrence Garvin made a name for himself on special teams last year by breaking the jaw of the Bengals punter to spring AB for a punt return touchdown. The WVU-product has made the conversion from a college safety to an inside linebacker and has the speed to cover sideline-to-sideline.

Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, B.W. Webb

Despite having 6 players on the 53-man roster listed as cornerbacks, the Steelers depth here is actually razor thin. Behind starters Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen and nickel corner William Gay there is not much confidence that any of the reserves could step in and play if forced into action. Antwon Blake was a special teams standout last season but was up and down in coverage in the preseason, getting beat deep a few times. Brice McCain was acquired in the offseason from Houston and he looked mediocre as a second-team corner but suffered a groin injury in the preseason finale. With McCain likely out for a few weeks, the Steelers added B.W. Webb off waivers. Webb was an intriguing draft prospect a few years ago, but he will likely be primarily a special teams player. Outside of quarterback, this is the position where the Steelers can least afford an injury this season.

Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden, Will Allen

The safety position saw addition by subtraction in the offseason when the Steelers let Ryan Clark go on his merry way, which wound up being back to Washington rather than to ESPN like many expected. In his place, the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell who had a great second half of 2013 for the Carolina Panthers. Troy Polamalu should be much better this season back in his natural role of safety rather than trying to play linebacker (even though he did make the Pro Bowl last year while mostly playing out of his natural position). Shamarko Thomas is the future at strong safety and showed enough in the preseason that the Steelers will need to find ways to get him on the field during the regular season. Will Allen is an established veteran that can play either position and provides a solid backup to both Troy and Mitchell as well as playing special teams. Rob Golden came up with big play after big play in the preseason, recovering fumbles and picking off passes, that he has a bright future if he can continue his development.

Shaun Suisham (K), Brad Wing (P), Greg Warren (LS)

If you're not concerned about all 3 of the guys on this list, then you didn't watch the preseason. As a unit, they are probably the most concerning group on the team. The Steelers signed Suisham to an absurd 5-year deal in the offseason and he responded by missing 3 field goals in the preseason and one extra long extra point from 33 yards. Suisham's inaccuracy should be concerning as the Steelers need him to be able to put points on the board. Brad Wing didn't show much in the preseason and was very sporadic in his punting, but for some reason the Steelers kept him rather than adding a punter off waivers like they did last year. Greg Warren suffered a knee injury in the preseason but should be good to go for the opener against Cleveland. Warren is one of the best long snappers in the business, but if he can't go against the Browns or Ravens, the Steelers haven't revealed what their backup plan is beyond Coach saying "We have a guy" ...but we all remember what happened when James Harrison was their guy and tried to long snap.

Head Coach
Mike Tomlin

After two consecutive 8-8 seasons, 2014 will be a referendum on Mike Tomlin as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his 7 years as head coach, the team has gone to 2 Super Bowls and been to the playoffs 4 times. However, Tomlin still struggles with some of the fundamentals of coaching such as clock management and timeout usage. Obviously, it is the 53 men on the roster that will determine the fate of the season, but Tomlin's coaching decisions (such as not having a backup plan for the running game if Kelvin Beachum had to fill in on the line against Tennessee last year) have directly impacted this team. Tomlin is far from being considered among the worst coaches in the league and the Steelers have a long track record of standing by their head coaches so it is hard to see Tomlin getting fired after this season unless the Steelers have an absolutely atrocious year with double-digit losses. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the angst is growing in the fanbase (as well it should) and if the Steelers don't start strong against a relatively weak schedule, the ire will grow towards Tomlin and the rest of the coaching staff.

Todd Haley (OC), Dick LeBeau (DC), Danny Smith (STC), Garrett Giemont (S&C)

It's strange how 3 months can change the opinions of an entire fanbase. After the loss to Minnesota, there were many people (myself included) that felt that Todd Haley shouldn't even be allowed back in the country much less on the sideline the following week. However, with a healthy Le'Veon Bell and Heath Miller, the offense started clicking over the second half of the season. While the WR screens are still incredibly frustrating, they are easier to live with when there are tight ends and offensive linemen blocking for them rather than WRs. If the last 8 weeks of 2013 were finally the full vision of Todd Haley's offense, it's certainly something we're comfortable living with. Dick LeBeau took some fire for the defensive breakdowns last season, but considering the defense was playing with Troy Polamalu at linebacker for most of the year, it seemed the issues on defense were more personnel issues than schematic issues. That said, if the defense fails to make a significant improvement this year with the investments that have been made, LeBeau may be looking at retirement at the end of the year. The special teams coverage units have been pretty good under Danny Smith and with Antonio Brown and Dri Archer at the back end the potential is there for points out of the return game.

Offensive Assistants
Mike Munchak (OL), James Daniel (TE), Randy Fichtner (QB), Richard Mann (WR), James Saxon (RB), Shaun Sarrett (OA)

This group is mostly the same as last year except for the addition of Mike Munchak as offensive line coach and James Saxon as running backs coach. It has been said many times throughout the offseason that Munchak might be the biggest addition to the team this offseason. He is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and had a great run of success in Houston and Tennessee as their offensive line coach before a mediocre head coaching career. The offensive line seems to be trending upwards in the preseason and if that trend continues it could mean big things for both the running game and passing game.

Defensive Assistants
John Mitchell (DL), Keith Butler (LB), Carnell Lake (DB), Jerry Olsavsky (DA), Joey Porter (DA)

Keith Butler has long been seen as the heir apparent to Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator. John Mitchell is one of the best defensive line coaches in the business and Carnell Lake led a revitalization of the defensive backs group in his 3 seasons with the team. The only new face here is Joey Porter who was hired as a defensive assistant to work with the outside linebackers on attitude and pass rushing moves. The results have already been seen with Jarvis Jones displaying an inside move for a sack against the Giants and hopefully Porter's hire continues to show improvement in the pass rush.

The Schedule

As you may have heard by now, the Steelers not only have a relatively easy schedule from an opponent standpoint, but also from a travel standpoint. The Steelers travel the fewest miles of any team in the league. Additionally, the Steelers only have to make one trip outside of Eastern Standard Time (which you may know has caused them problems in the past). In addition to having an easy travel schedule, the Steelers have a relatively easy start  to the season with two games against the Browns, one against the Jaguars and one against the Texans in their first 7 outings. Additionally, the Steelers prime time games are stacked towards the front of the schedule which means (as of now) no night games in December (which is good for Season Ticket Holders because those games get cold). The Steelers face both the Ravens and Browns twice in the first 9 weeks and don't play the Bengals until December where they face them twice. The Steelers can position themselves to make a run at the division title by Thanksgiving and get the benefit of an extra week to prepare for the New Orleans Saints, who they get at home. Drew Brees is much better indoors than outdoors, especially in late November. The schedule sets up very well for the Steelers this season and they will only need to look in the mirror if they don't capitalize.

The Division

Cincinnati, somehow, is the reigning division champs and have made 3 straight playoff appearances. The Bengals biggest losses in the offseason were their two assistant coaches and they return mostly the same team after signing Andy Dalton to a gigantic extension making him the highest paid ginger of all time. Joe Flacco, a year removed from signing his gigantic contract in Baltimore, will play behind one of the worst lines in the league and the Ravens will be without domestic abuser Ray Rice for only two games because the NFL only cares about women when they are selling pink stuff. Baltimore has had some turnover on defense but will be mostly the same team with the addition of Steve Smith as their 2nd WR. Cleveland will be the new home of ESPN's main office by the time the NBA season starts in October and Johnny Manziel is under center with no receivers and an injured Ben Tate in the backfield. Basically, the division is there for the taking.

The Conference

Denver. New England. Everyone else. There isn't much debate over who the best two teams in the AFC are, but beyond the Broncos and Patriots anyone could be the 3rd best team. Indianapolis could be, but they have some problems on defense. Kansas City looks poised to take a big step back and San Diego isn't much better than they were last year. Oakland might be the most improved team in the AFC, but improving from a 4-win season isn't difficult. Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston all have big question marks under center. The Jets will be mediocre again but Geno Smith hasn't proven he is capable of leading the team to victory either. The Dolphins, if they find an offensive line and a semblance of a defense, could be competitive again. The Bills are the Bills and will likely hit their 10th losing season. Much the same as with the division, if we can just get into the playoffs, there are only two teams that look at this point to be the cream of the crop. But as we well know, anything can happen in the playoffs. We just have to get there.

The Twitter

Twitter is a great source for news and info about the team. The most accurate news usually comes from the beat writers that cover the team for the local news outlets. Unfortunately, they also have very thin skin and don't like it when you question them or jokingly call them a commie because they said Russia should have beat the US in Olympic hockey. Beat writers are much more likely to block you on twitter if you say something criticizing them than bloggers or general fans. The media guys worth following are the ones that have radio shows, as they will interact with fans and generally provide good insight. As for the non-affiliated folks (aka Bloggers), they're all worth following. Here's my list of recommended Twitter Follows for the 2014 season.

Guys with Radio Shows: @AdamCrowleySNR@ChrisMuellerPGH@DavidMTodd, @Dejan_Kovacevic, @Ken_Laird@THEChrisMack

Bloggers: @AGretz, @Benstonium, @blitzburghblog1@BlitzburghBrian, @btsteelcurtain@ChrisG_BR, @gwjones7, @JanePitt@jjcoop36@NealCoolong, @NickKelly_PGH, @OFTOT@PGHGurl, @psamp@sarah_sprague, @seansramblings@Steel_By_Design, @SteelDad, @SteelerAddicts @steelergurl@Steelers_Lounge, @Steelersdepot, @ThreeRiversBlog

Fans: @ace_luke, @BigBurgher, @burghbaby@CrimsonTider74, @JRown32@lvallana, @mattkoz81@MikeDarnay, @stevebraband@stoosh10@SuckMeter

The Blogs

Like most Pittsburghers, your first visits around the internet every day are probably to the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review. However, the Post-Gazette has a paywall that kicks you out after 10 views each month. Former PG and Trib columnist Dejan Kovacevic recently launched his own site, but it also has a paywall that you hit after 10 views per month. Here's the list of blogs you should make part of your rotation of reading material. I put them in alphabetical order because I didn't want anyone to feel slighted about appearing low on the list. All of them do great work.
The 2013 season is behind us. The 0-4 start. The 6-2 close. The two consecutive 8-8 seasons. 2014 lies ahead. We do not know what 2014 has in store, but it is a journey that has been building since the Chargers beat the Chiefs in late December 2013. What lies ahead we can not be sure, but together as Steeler Nation we enter the unknown.

Here. We. Go.

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