Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Steelers: Stuck in Neutral


Linebacker Ryan Shazier should provide some much-needed speed to an aging Steelers defense, if he can quickly learn the schemes. (USA TODAY Sports)

In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.

By Robert Weintraub

July 7, 2014

Pittsburgh has finished 8-8 in two straight seasons and missed the playoffs both times, a run of mediocrity not seen since the Kordell "Slash" Stewart Era in Steel City. It's been far longer than that since the franchise was truly bad, however; for that you have to go back to the bumbling days before the late Chuck Noll took over as coach.
Noll's recent passing is reminder enough that these days, even when the Steelers are "bad," they're still pretty good. Even last season, when they started 0-4 and put on a performance at Wembley Stadium so woeful the English national soccer team challenged Pittsburgh to a game of "gridiron" immediately afterward, they still wound up on the cusp of the postseason, denied by a bad call and a bunch of backups.
So after a flurry of offseason moves designed to get faster on both sides of the ball, the Steelers are feeling optimistic about a return to their natural domain atop the AFC North. But as head coach Mike Tomlin points out, "You can convince yourself of anything this time of year."

Biggest Offseason Move: Drafting Some Speed

Players garbed in black-and-gold seemed to be moving underwater at times last season, especially on defense and on the perimeter. So the club embraced its inner Maverick in the draft, selecting blazing (4.36 40-yard dash at his pro day) linebacker Ryan Shazier of Ohio State with the 15th pick. Shazier is fast and smart, but is any inside linebacker worth grabbing that high, especially with some much-needed secondary talent (Darqueze Dennard, Jason Verrett) still on the board? Probably not. Certainly it seemed like Pittsburgh could get a 'backer nearly as good as Shazier later in the draft.
Meanwhile, learning Dick LeBeau's intricate defensive system promises to sap some of Shazier's speed while his brain struggles to catch up. Opposing offenses are sure to scheme the Steelers into making the rookie opt between assignments in space, and deny him opportunities to merely fly to the ball. And the ability of the front three to occupy blockers so Shazier can do his thing is paramount. Beefy rookies Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers will get every opportunity to do so.
Over on offense, Pittsburgh tabbed a guy so hummingbird-like he predicts for himself a Madden Speed Score of 99. Even Dri Archer's name sounds fast, like he was too fleet for the letters missing from "Adrian" to catch up. He will return kicks and get the odd speed sweep and bubble screen; in other words, the Chris Rainey role, hopefully without the misanthropy. Of course at 174 pounds Archer had better be fast -- the aforementioned Tuitt weighed that much in elementary school.
Of more potential import is raw but fast and tall wideout Martavis Bryant, who was overshadowed at Clemson by Sammy Watkins but has the skill set to eventually supplant Antonio Brown as the number one option. At the very least, he should be able to remove the top off of defenses as Mike Wallace did before taking his starting blocks to South Beach.
In the meantime, Ben Roethlisberger's happiness will be directly tied to second-year man Markus Wheaton's ability to fill Emmanuel Sanders' "X" receiver slot. Wheaton battled finger injuries in 2013 and had little impact; he, too, is a virtual rookie. A Wheaton/Bryant combo could be deadly in a couple of seasons, but for now veteran signee Lance Moore could be Big Ben's default option, a la Jerricho Cotchery last year. Justin Brown, a sixth-rounder last year, has impressed in minicamp, but to quote Tomlin once again, football under the summer sun isn't football, it's "football-like."

Biggest Offseason Gamble: Bringing back Ike Taylor

Generally speaking, fans shouldn't celebrate bringing back a player who has to take a enormous pay cut. It implies two things -- the player isn't all that good, and the fans are siding with management in its unending battle to marginalize the importance of labor.
So the news that cornerback Ike Taylor has returned to Pittsburgh (a historic union town) more than $4 million lighter in the wallet is only good news for the Rooneys. Taylor was brutal last season, exposed as an aging player no longer able to cover the top wideouts (with the glaring exception of A.J. Green, over whom Ike retains a mystifying psychic grip. (Was A.J. scarred by What's Love Got To Do With It as a youngster?) Per Football Outsiders, the Steelers were 29th in the NFL against opposing team's number one receiver. Taylor was also 71st in Adjusted Yards per Pass and 80th in Success Rate, a pair of complicated metrics that confirm what your eyes already told you -- the 34-year old was overmatched.
It would be fine if the Steelers planned to utilize Taylor merely as a dime corner and locker room guy. But he continues to ride atop the depth chart opposite Cortez Allen, who surely will assume the duty of stopping top receivers but can't slow enemy passing attacks by himself. 31 players had more interceptions than the three Pittsburgh corners picked off combined last year. Houston castoff Brice McCain and fifth-round draft choice Shaquille Richardson don't figure to alter that number, though even by accident the corners should get more than three measly takeaways in 2014. Taylor's selflessness and loyalty to the Steelers is laudable, but it may be that Pittsburgh's loyalty to Taylor may come back to bite them.

Can Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro all stay healthy together? It's been an extremely rare sight. (Getty)

Biggest 2014 Question: Can The Big Uglies Stay On The Field?

Pittsburgh's offensive line has had multiple issues over the last few seasons, mainly due to a lack of talent and direction, but also because the key guys up front have struggled to stay healthy. Last season center Maurkice Pouncey went out to a knee ligament tear in the first game; guard (and top draft choice) David DeCastro did him one better the year before, going on the scrap heap during the preseason. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been plagued by ankle knocks as well. The knocks to crucial linemen have contributed to the team's awful run DVOA the last two seasons (29th in '13, 31st in '12).
It's critical they all stay on the field this season, for the depth is questionable. As it is, the Steelers are counting on Gilbert and 2012 seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum to man the tackle spots. Both players certainly showed flashes in the back half of 2013, once the Steelers finally flushed the toxins of their horrendous start from their system. Roethlisberger was only sacked seven times over the last eight games.

DeCastro returned from his rather severe injury to play good football last year, living up to his draft status, especially in the run game. Can Pouncey do likewise? Clearly, the Steelers are all-in with his orthopedist, having signed their center and line linchpin to a hefty new deal in mid-June. His catastrophic tear (caused by DeCastro, ironically, in some Steel-on-Steel crime) looked career-threatening when it happened. Even Pouncey had doubts, saying "I didn't think I was ever going to walk again," at the press conference announcing his new deal. If he is back to being the three-time Pro Bowler he was before he got hurt, and DeCastro can at last play alongside him, new offensive line coach Mike Munchak should be able to design some cover for his less talented tackles.

Bold Prediction

The Steelers get off to another slow start, thanks to injuries, the natural slow progress of meshing new contributors to the lineup, and an odd schedule quirk that sees them playing consecutive prime-time games (Thursday and Sunday nights against Baltimore and Carolina) on the road in weeks two and three. By November, Pittsburgh will be formidable, but once again, the progress comes too late to reach the postseason, as the Steelers are touched out on the season's final Sunday. Calls for Tomlin's head on a spike are heard from Pittsburgh to Westeros, but Shaft keeps his gig for 2015.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.

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