|Steelers Singular Measure of Success|
In just over 48 hours the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the season vs. the Cleveland Browns celebrating Chuck Noll day in the process. After the most active off season in recent memory if not team history, the question on everyone’s mind is can the Black and Gold improve after twin 8-8 seasons.
- The Steelers measure success in Super Bowls.
They haven’t taken their slide into parity sitting down. For two consecutive off seasons, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been more than content to let free agents walk out the door in favor of new blood. A look at the Steelers 2014 Roster shows new blood a plenty.
- But is it enough? Or more critically, has it arrived in the right places?
Cause for both optimism and pessimism exists and both get a fair shake here.
Depth Perception – Half Full
The easy storyline on the Steelers prospects for an improved 2014 lies in their depth. It is a story line that was so tempting that yours truly was tempted to pre-write this article long before training camp or preseason concluded.
- To be certain, the Steelers did bolster their depth.
Look no further than inside linebacker. When Larry Foote went down vs. Tennessee, the Steelers lost his 158 games and 105 starts (in Pittsburgh) and “replaced” that lost experience with Kion Wilson’s 19 games and six starts. And he wasn’t even the preferred replacement. Those duties feel to Vince Williams, who was in street clothes.
- In a single season, inside linebacker has flipped from being one of the shallowest to one of the deepest on the team.
Certainly, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence must prove themselves, but Terrence Garvin and 2014 edition of Vince Williams by themselves would already represent an year-to-year improvement in the depth chart.
Safety is another area where the Steelers return strong – at least on paper. Sharmarko Thomas and Robert Golden both bring 1 more year of experience, and Michael Mitchell alone subtracts 9 years from the secondary’s cumulative age. (It goes without saying, Tory Polamalu’s got to stay healthy.)
At tight end, the Steelers have actually gotten older rather than younger, but they’ll start the season with the benefit of TE’s number 1 and 2, Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, something that did not happen until December of 2014.
- Even on offensive line the Steelers have improved depth, at least in terms of carrying players with better upside.
While these improvements in depth are real, they are far from universal, as we shall see.
Perceiving Depth Through a Kaleidoscope
In other areas the Pittsburgh Steelers will field a different, but not necessarily deeper team.
Wide receiver offers us exhibit A. Antonio Brown is the only wide out who set on the field for Pittsburgh in 2013. Beyond that the Steelers have wagered that Markus Wheaton can make up for Emmanuel Sanders production, and Lance Moore can offer more bang for the buck than Jericho Cotchery did.
Justin Brown pushed Derek Moye to back to the practice squad, but is it a case of Brown being so much better or Moye’s development stalling? Steelers Nation will soon know. Like Jonathan Dwyer a year before him, Darrius Heyward-Bey seems to know this is his final shot at NFL glory and approached the preseason accordingly.
- This is a different group – can it be a better group?
The defensive line offer us Exhibit B. 2013’s three starters return, but the backups either offer the benefit of being more cost effective (see Cam Thomas for Al Woods) or far brighter upsides. That makes for good copy, but will it make for better line play? The time to find out arrives soon.
Where the Glass is Half Empty, the Ice is Thin and the Water Deep…
Then there is the secondary and the outside linebacking crops.
The Steelers quite simply need Ike Taylor to rebound and show he can cheat father time for one more year. William Gay must say in “Big Play Willie Gay” mode per my friend Tony Defeo. And Cortez Allen needs to prove the Steelers were right in letting Keenan Lewis walk.
- And all three must stay healthy.
The outside linebacking corps is thinner yet. Jason Worilds must stay healthy an must play consistently. Jarvis Jones must make the leap. And Steelers Nation must hope it does not hear the name “Arthur Moats.”
No less than Steelers Digest editor Bob Labirola opened the Steelers 2013 season saying the team was walking without a tight rope, in the faith that the NFL’s injury gods would finally favor them. He was talking about the offensive line, but he also could have been talking about the inside linebacking.
- Disaster struck 8 plays into the season.
This year the Steelers are doing the same thing at corner and at outside linebacker. Perhaps they can pull it off. Either way, the die has been cast.
Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full? The Answer’s in Their Hands…
The mantra of Steelers Digest heading into the last two seasons has been, “Ben Roethlisberger gives the Steelers a chance.” “Chance” of course means “Super Bowl.” It’s true that a legit franchise quarterback does open possibilities in the NFL.
- That, along with Colbert’s 1st round success, explains the difference between the also ran Steelers of ‘90’s and twin championships of the ’00’s.
But a franchise quarterback cannot do it on his own, the Steelers twin 8-8 records prove that. It’s no secret that the why Steelers status as contenders simmered out in ’12. That’s because they were four years removed from the awful ’08 draft, the exact moment that a couple of three of those players should have been reaching their prime.
- Ditto 2013 and the missed opportunities of the ’09 draft.
But the reach of the ghosts of the ’08 and ’09 drafts is just about exhausted. Case in point, the emergence of Cameron Heyward proved to be a big reason that the 2013 Steelers flipped a 2-6 record to a 6-2.
If the 2014 Steelers are to make similar improvements, then David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Markus Wheaton, and Ryan Shaizer must assert themselves similarly. Non-starters such as Sean Spence, Shamarko Thomas and Mike Adams must rise to the occasion when called upon.
Yes, the Steelers do still have a few key performers from their ’05 and ’08 Super Bowl teams, and Pittsburgh needs all of them to remain healthy and productive.
Let the games begin.