Thursday, January 08, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers season report card

By Scott Brown
January 7, 2015

Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers hands the ball off to Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on December 7, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
(Source: John Grieshop/Getty Images North America) 

» AFCEast | West | North | South » NFCEast | West | North | South

PITTSBURGH -- Can a team exceed expectations without even matching their own? 

The Pittsburgh Steelers put that riddle to the test in 2014 as they won the AFC North after consecutive 8-8 seasons, but fell well short of the Super Bowl. 

The Steelers' goal is to contend for a Super Bowl title every season. That might not be in line with reality, but no other team has six Lombardi Trophies. 

The Steelers looked like they might make a postseason charge after winning eight of their final 10 games to finish 11-5 and secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. But winning their first division title since 2010 came with a heavy cost. Pittsburgh lost All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell to a hyperextended knee in the regular-season finale. 

Bell did not play in the Steelers' 30-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game at Heinz Field. 

Team MVP: The loss to the Ravens magnified Bell's value to the Steelers' offense. Forget for a moment the running aspect -- and the fact that Bell finished second in the NFL with 1,361 rushing yards -- and consider how his loss impacted the passing game. Bell is terrific at picking up blitzing linebackers and he led all NFL running backs in 2014 with 811 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pressed against the Ravens without Bell. The second-year running back emerged as one of the NFL's most complete players, and is the biggest reason why the Steelers' offense rose to another level this season. 

Best moment: Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes in consecutive games, leading the Steelers to big wins over theIndianapolis Colts and Ravens. The hottest stretch of Roethlisberger's career came shortly after a desultory loss in Cleveland dropped Pittsburgh to 3-3 -- and .500 in the 38 regular-season games that followed its most recent playoff appearance in 2011. Roethlisberger completed 75.6 percent of his passes for 862 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions in the two games against the Colts and Ravens. That stretch helped him share the NFL passing title with Drew Brees (4,952 yards). 

Worst moment: What goes up inevitably comes down, as the Steelers found out when they traveled to East Rutherford, New Jersey, in the second week of November. Pittsburgh followed a three-game winning streak with a performance against the New York Jets that was as listless as it was inexplicable. The Jets won their second game of the season by flashing the opportunism that had been noticeably absent in their trudge to a 1-9 start. The Steelers committed three turnovers in the 14-10 loss against a team that entered the game with the fewest takeaways in the NFL. The Steelers had a handful of bad losses in 2014; none was worse than the one to the Jets. 

2015 outlook: The arrow, as coach Mike Tomlin is fond of saying, is pointing up for the Steelers. The offense returns every starter from this season, and young wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are only going to get better. The caveat with the Steelers, though, is two-fold. The defense remains in transition and there are major questions in the secondary as well as at outside linebacker, where only Jarvis Jones is signed beyond this season. Also, next season's schedule isn't nearly as favorable it was this year. Trips to Seattle, San Diego and Kansas City loom after the Steelers' farthest trip west in 2014 was Tennessee. Pittsburgh also has to play at New England.

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