Friday, January 9, 2015

Requiem for a Season: The 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers

In the end, sometimes the best place to start is thinking about the beginning. The story of the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers began with a missed field goal in San Diego last December, an improbable end to a 2013 season that saw us start 0-4 then rally to a 6-2 finish and nearly steal a playoff berth. But when the Chargers emerged victorious in overtime, the book was closed on the 2013 Steelers and the story of 2014 began. The offseason started with debates over LaMarr Woodley vs Jason Worilds, which position on defense was of the biggest need in the draft, and which players would need to be cut in order to stay under the salary cap. The Steelers got lucky in early 2014 when the NFL announced the salary cap at $133 million, a $10 million increase from 2013 and much higher than many had anticipated. This enabled the Steelers to put the Transition Tag on Jason Worilds and cut ties with LaMarr Woodley. Woodley was designated as a June 1 cut in order to save some money on the 2014 cap, pushing $8.5 million in dead money out to 2015 - something that I'll be talking about a lot more when I start breaking down our salary cap situation next week.

Free agency saw the departure of Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Larry Foote, Al Woods and Ryan Clark. Those guys cashed in to the tune of $13.4 million in 2014 cap dollars. On the flip side, the Steelers went out and attempted to get the most bang for their buck, signing 8 players to veteran minimum contracts (Palmer, Warren, Allen, Moats, McCain, Whimper, Wallace and Heyward-Bey). They also made 4 bigger signings of Mike Mitchell, Cam Thomas, LeGarrette Blount and Lance Moore.
Looking back, the four big free agents that the Steelers signed were largely disappointments. However, they did get more than their money's worth out of Brice McCain and Greg Warren while Wallace, Moats and Allen provided solid rotational depth. Heyward-Bey gave nothing in the passing game but was arguably the third best special teams player (behind Ross Ventrone and Antwon Blake). The Steelers didn't get an impact player in free agency, and parted ways with Whimper in the preseason and Blount during the regular season. There was a lot of positivity about Mike Mitchell when the signing was first announced, including from myself:
Mitchell's contract is structured in a way that gives the Steelers a relatively easy out should he not pan out. Mitchell's contract has a $2 million roster bonus built in for 2015, which the Steelers could save if they cut him after this season (though it would likely take a disastrous 2014 for that to happen). Mitchell's base salary does not increase to $5 million until 2016, the third year of the deal, at which point the Steelers could cut him with less than $3 million dead against the cap. Mitchell had the best season of his career at the back end of Carolina's defense last year, finishing 4th on the team in tackles and had 4 interceptions and 10 passes defended.
The signs were all there that Mitchell could be an impact player. He had 4 picks, 10 passes defended, 2 sacks for Carolina in 2013. Unfortunately, his 2014 stat line was a regression to ineptitude where he had a career-low 3 passes defended and did not record an interception or sack for only the second time in his career. Mitchell's season was so bad, he wasn't even close to the ball or the receiver in most cases, routinely getting beat over the top and across the middle. He was atrocious in coverage and to make matters worse had a career high 5 penalties - 3 of them of the personal foul variety. Mitchell wound up being the kind of player that is almost impossible to root for - he was a dirty player on the field who talked a big game but never backed it up.

Unfortunately the two enduring images of Mitchell from this season will be the ridiculous leap into the Jets victory formation and screenshots of him chirping fans on Twitter.

For much of the season, the secondary was an unmitigated disaster and it was two cast-offs signed to minimum deals (McCain and Blake) that eventually stabilized the unit. The team started the year with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen at corner and lost Taylor to injury and Allen to ineffective play, finishing the season with William Gay, McCain and Blake as the three primary corners. This is probably the most accurate description of our secondary through the first 6 games:

An unfortunately fair assessment of both Cortez Allen and Mike Mitchell

At the end of the season, Gay, McCain and Blake were clearly our best three corners but their size presented matchup problems for the Steelers as Gay was the tallest of the group at 5'10". Troy Polamalu's play significantly declined this year, which combined with the ineffective Mitchell created a gaping hole in the middle of the field. For the second time in three seasons, Polamalu missed playing time due to injury and this was the first season since 2007 that he failed to record an interception. Like Mitchell, Polamalu wasn't even close to the ball most of the time - recording a career low 1 pass defended. Troy frequently rushed off the edge but failed to record a sack for the first time in five years. In a dramatic change from previous seasons, it was the cornerbacks and not the safeties that were responsible for the splash plays from the Steelers defense.

But not everything about the 2014 Steelers was gloom and doom. The team overcame some early season struggles on offense and ended the season with the highest scoring offense in Steelers history. The offense had record-breaking performances out of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. 

New Records
  • Ben Roethlisberger
    • Completions (408) - broke his own record of 375 from 2013
    • Attempts (608) - broke his own record of 584 from 2013
    • Completion Percentage with at least 40 attempts (67.1%) - broke his own record of 66.6% from 2009
    • Yards (4,952) - broke his own record of 4,328 from 2009
    • Touchdowns (32) - tied his own record from 2007
    • Yards per Game (309.5) - broke his own record of 288.5 from 2009
  • Le'Veon Bell
    • Yards from Scrimmage (2,215) - broke Barry Foster's record of 2,034 from 1992
    • Receptions by a Running Back (83) - broke John L Williams' record of 51 from 1994
    • Receiving Yards by a Running Back (854) - broke Ray Mathews' record of 762 from 1955
  • Antonio Brown
    • Receptions (129) - broke Hines Ward's record of 112 from 2002
    • Yards (1,698) - broke his own record of 1,499 from 2013
    • Touchdowns (13) - broke Hines Ward/Louis Lipps/Buddy Dail's record of 12 from 2002/1985/1961.
    • Receptions per Game (8.1) - broke Hines Ward's record of 7.0 from 2002
    • Yards per Game (106.1) - broke his own record of 93.7 from 2013
In addition to individual single-season records, several Steelers propelled themselves up franchise leaderboards with great seasons. Antonio Brown moved into the top 5 in career receptions and Heath Miller ended the season just 5 receptions shy of John Stallworth for second on the Steelers All-Time list. Heath also passed Louis Lipps for 4th on the receiving yards list and Antonio Brown jumped from 14th to 6th. Brown will enter 2015 needing just 203 yards to pass Lynn Swann for fifth. Miller passed Buddy Dial and now sits 4th on the career receiving touchdowns list with Brown needing just two more to break into the top ten. Le'Veon Bell, in just his second season, entered the Top 20 in rushing touchdowns and needs another 8-touchdown season next year to reach the Top 10. Big Ben extended his franchise records in Attempts, Completions, Yards and Touchdowns and needs just 2 more wins to be the winningest quarterback in Steelers history. Shaun Suisham passed Norm Johnson for 4th place in Field Goals made and could catch Roy Gerela next year with 19 field goals. Suisham also maintained his place atop the list of most accurate Steelers kickers (with more than 5 career attempts).

Not only did the 2014 Steelers offense produce record-breaking individual numbers, they collectively had the 3 highest scoring outings of the Mike Tomlin era (42 against Cincinnati, 43 against Baltimore and 51 against Indianapolis). Ben Roethlisberger had the best two weeks of any quarterback ever not named Peyton Manning when he threw for 522 yards and 6 TDs against Indianapolis then followed it up with 340 yards and 6 TDs against Baltimore. The Steelers scored 30+ points in 7 games this season, something that had one been done once before in team history - in 1979. The offense benefited from improved offensive line play under the guidance of Mike Munchak. For the first time in years, the Steelers had a stable group of linemen for the entire season. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed 4 games to injury and left guard Ramon Foster missed two, but the rest of the line started all 16 games, making this the most stable line the Steelers had in years - and it paid off.

Todd Haley drew some criticism (and rightfully so) for the failures of the offense through the first 6 games of the season. After coming out strong against the Browns in the season opener, the offense laid eggs in 3 of the next 5 games, scoring only 6 in Baltimore, 10 in Jacksonville and 10 in Cleveland. A 3-3 start to the season left many wondering about the direction of the team. The offense was expected to carry the club, but was only averaging 20.67 points per game while a porous defense was surrendering 23.17 points per game and had been gashed for over 150 yards on the ground in 3 of their first 6 outings.

Enter Martavis Bryant. 

In his first game with a helmet, the 4th round pick hauled in 2 catches for 40 yards and a touchdown against Houston. Suddenly the offense had its deep threat. Bryant exploded over the next two weeks against Indianapolis and Baltimore, scoring twice in each game and tallying 127 receiving yards. After Bryant was inserted into the lineup in Week 7, the team averaged 31.2 points per game - a 10-point improvement over their first 6 outings. For the defense, it was more of the same as they allowed 22.9 points per game over the last 10 but improved their turnover margin from 1 takeaway per game in the first 6 games to 1.5 per game in the last 10. All this combined to produce an 8-2 run to close out the season and take the division title in the last week of the season from the Bengals. Takeaways proved to be an indicator for success as the Steelers were 7-0 in games where the defense produced at least 2 takeaways, were 7-0 in games they won the turnover battle, and were 10-2 in games where the turnover margin was even or favored the Steelers.

We have yet to know how the 2014 Steelers will be remembered by history. Will they be seen like one of the years of the mid-1980s: the last hurrah of Super Bowl Champions? (In this case James Harrison, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor). Or will it be seen as the year the turnaround began, much like 2007, emerging from an 8-8 campaign with an injection of young talent and the stepping stone to bigger and better things? These are the questions that will be in our minds during the offseason - as hopefully the 2015 campaign shares a conclusion with the 2008 season. Ultimately, I think the 2014 Steelers are who we thought they were. They were an improvement over the previous iterations that finished the season with the top passer, top receiver and one of the top running backs in the league. At the beginning of the year, I said "Denver and New England are clearly the best teams in the AFC, but the third spot is wide open. The Steelers could very well be the 3rd best team in the AFC this year." While our postseason results did not bear this out, the team did go 11-5 (with a 5-1 record against playoff teams) and finish 3rd in the AFC. That is nothing to scoff at after back-to-back 8-8 seasons and puts us on an upward trajectory heading into 2015. In fact, looking back to the second half of 2013, the Steelers are 17-8 in their last 25 games.

But at the same time, they were not who we thought they would be. They had one of the weaker schedules in the NFL this year (granted no one expected the NFC South to be *that* bad) but they could not take advantage of the weaker opposition on the schedule. The NFC South went 3-12-1 against the AFC North with 2 of the wins coming against the Steelers. Before the season, many had the Steelers pegged as a 10-6 team, but no one expected losses to the 2-14 Buccaneers, 4-12 Jets and 7-9 Browns (not to mention near-losses to the 3-13 Jaguars and 2-14 Titans). The one consistency of the Steelers was their inconsistency - they routinely played to the level of their opponents. They looked like an elite team against quality opponents like the Colts, Ravens and Bengals but looked like a team deserving of a Top-10 pick against the Bucs, Jags, Jets and Titans. At the end of the day in the NFL, the line between 10-6 and 6-10 is very thin.

Even though the book is now closed on the 2014 Steelers, let us not forget the good times. There certainly were many of them this year.

Sean Spence's Return

Football isn't always about "feel-good" stories, but seeing Spence start the first preseason game after suffering a devastating (and potentially career-ending) knee injury two years ago was something special. Spence came on throughout the year to be a very solid player.

A Better Start Than Last Year


Antonio Brown kicking the Browns punter in the face.

As an aside: For those that follow me on Twitter, you know that I commonly say "All Antonio Brown does is make big plays." I've tried to teach my 3-year old to say this, but every time I ask him "What does Antonio Brown do?" he says "Kicks people in the face!"


Peezy Getting Wrecked

Something happening for the first time since I was in diapers

Antonio Brown's Lynn Swann impression against Tampa

Taking over the Jaguars pool

The season turning around when Lawrence Timmons blew chunks on national TV

We were 3-3 and down 10-0 to the Texans when this happened. The defense held the Texans to a field goal then the offense rattled off 24 points in the last 3 minutes of the half, scoring 3 TDs in the final 1:45 of game time.

Everything about the Indianapolis Game

...even the Colts fans getting it:

Mean Joe Greene's Jersey Retirement

...and this AWESOME Mean Joe-centric Renegade

Brett Keisel coming back and giving it everything he had

Le'Veon Bell carrying the team on his back after LeGarrette Blount was cut

Big Play Bill Gay's 3 Pick-Sixes

Goodbye .500

Mike Tomlin being emotional on the sidelines

James Harrison's Last Hurrah Against The Chiefs

The Battle For the North

Winning the Division

The 2014 Steelers were primarily a young team that did not have much postseason experience. By my count, there were 27 players who had never played in a playoff game that took the field against Baltimore. It was a bit of baptism by fire, but postseason experience (however brief) is something that can only benefit this team moving forward. The team did get significant contributions from veterans as well, with Brett Keisel being called upon in the 11th hour of the preseason to come back and fill a hole in the defensive line. Keisel proved to be more than a stopgap - he was the 3rd best player on the defense for most of the season until he was lost to a torn biceps. The team lost Ike Taylor, Jarvis Jones and first round pick Ryan Shazier to injury in Week 3 against Carolina, prompting them to bring back James Harrison from retirement. Even though he was not the same player that he was in his prime, Harrison stabilized the run defense and provided an epic moment against Cincinnati.

As the season went on, the Steelers were able to work their young players into the lineup. Stephon Tuitt went from only getting a handful of snaps in the season opener to being the starting defensive end opposite Cam Heyward. Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier proved to be a viable tandem of linebackers that could be situationally rotated next to Lawrence Timmons. Le'Veon Bell emerged as one of the best - if not the best - all-around back in the league, rushing for over 1300 yards and finishing with over 800 receiving yards (one of just 7 players all time to have 1000+ rushing yards and 800+ receiving yards). Antonio Brown had a season that didn't even seem possible for a Steelers receiver, posting the second most receptions and 6th most years in a single season in league history. Not only was it the best season ever by a Steelers receiver, it was one of the best ever in league history. Ben Roethlisberger tied Drew Brees for the passing title. The Steelers had 3 All-Pro players (Bell, Brown and Maurkice Pouncey) and had 5 Pro Bowl selections (Bell, Brown, Pouncey, Roethlisberger and Timmons). Arguably, David DeCastro and Cam Heyward could have been Pro Bowlers as well. 

Such is life in the NFL. Like with the Game of Thrones, when you play you either win or you die. The Steelers will not sit upon the Iron Throne / raise the Lombardi Trophy this year. But that does not mean this season was unsuccessful. This should be remembered as one of the greatest offensive teams the Steelers ever fielded. Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell had some of the best seasons in Steelers history. Ultimately, as is true in all sports - the problems you have in the regular season will haunt you in the postseason. The Steelers could not defend against the Ravens tight ends, they could not generate a consistent pass rush, they rang up a bunch of yards but kicked field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, and their safety play was non-existent. There is hope for the future. There is potential in the young defensive players added in this draft and the offensive stars (outside of Ben who has only 1 year left on his contract) are all signed for the long-term. The Steelers window is not closing. There will be plenty of time during the offseason to analyze the team needs and what they will need to add in free agency and the draft. 

But now, it is time to close the book on 2014. In closing, thanks to everyone who tweeted, re-tweeted, read the blog, commented, and chatted with me this year. I never dreamed this blog would grow as big as it has, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading as much as I have enjoyed writing. The 2014 season was a fun ride, even though it ended with disappointment at the hands of our rivals. It should not be forgotten because of what this team achieved. Hopefully in the future we can remember 2014 as a stepping stone towards our Seventh Ring. Unfortunately, 2014 will not be the season that we reached the pinnacle of the Stairway to Seven.

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