No more pencils, no more books for the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers did get some dirty looks from their fans during their second consecutive non-playoff season, and most of them came when they were on defense.
These grades for the defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, special teams, defensive coordinator and head coach won’t be worth hanging on a refrigerator.
The Steelers allowed 115 rushing yards per game in 2013, 21st in the NFL. That’s their second-worst ranking in 44 years, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Steve McLendon hasn’t been the space-hogging presence at nose tackle that Casey Hampton was. Ziggy Hood graded out as the Steelers’ worst overall defensive player, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), not what you want from a first-round draft choice. Brett Keisel had four sacks, but he missed four games with injuries and also graded poorly against the run.
Cameron Heyward had a breakthrough year with a career-high five sacks and seven passes defended, most of those coming when he batted down passes. He broke up just one pass in his first two seasons combined. Heyward also led the Steelers with 34 quarterback hurries. But this unit needed more than just one bright spot.
The loss of Larry Foote in the season opener contributed to the Steelers’ run-stopping woes this season. Lawrence Timmons had an up-and-down year at the other inside linebacker position, although there wasn’t much of a statistical dropoff from previous seasons. He just wasn’t as much of a game-changing force as he’s been in the past.
The light finally went on for Jason Worilds when he moved to left outside linebacker in the middle of the season. Seven of his eight sacks came in his last eight games, and according to Pro Football Focus he led the Steelers with 21 quarterback hits. LaMarr Woodley was second with eight.
Woodley started the season strong with five sacks in the first six games. But for the third straight year, he couldn’t stay healthy. He missed five games and had no sacks after Oct. 20. His days in Pittsburgh might be over.
Jarvis Jones faced a steep learning curve in his rookie season. He had just one sack and two quarterback hits. But he saved his best game for last and showed promise for next season.
Inside linebacker Vince Williams, a rookie drafted in the sixth round, also seemed to improve as the season went along as the Steelers desperately tried to fill the void left by Foote.
As a group, the linebackers deserve their share of the blame for the Steelers’ porous defense this season, especially when it comes to the pass rush. Their 34 sacks were the franchise’s fewest since 1990, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Troy Polamalu earned his eighth Pro Bowl honor despite playing out of position for much of the season. He often had to line up at inside linebacker early in the year after the injury to Larry Foote. Polamalu forced a career-high five fumbles and had multiple sacks for the first time since 2005.
Free safety Ryan Clark, 34, and cornerback Ike Taylor, 33, are on the decline. They both missed 13 tackles, the most on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. Clark broke up four passes, his lowest total since 2007. Taylor failed to intercept a pass in 2013. Despite his lack of ball skills, he always had at least one pick every year since 2004.
Cortez Allen didn’t develop as quickly as the Steelers would have liked, especially since he was groomed as the replacement for Keenan Lewis. William Gay, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Gay ranked as the No. 8 overall cornerback in the league, according to PFF. A couple of key pass breakups in Week 7 against the Ravens helped the Steelers win that game, which pointed them in the right direction on the long road back from 0-4.
Will Allen was re-signed before Week 6 and provided valuable depth. We’ll know more about rookie Shamarko Thomas when he sees more action next season.
The secondary was the last line of a defense that yielded 11 plays of 50 yards or more in 2013, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The Steelers allowed three such plays in 2011 and 2012 combined.
There wasn’t much Dick LeBeau could do about aging players, but better preparation could have prevented such disasters as Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard touchdown on the opening play in Oakland and the 55 points and 610 yards allowed at New England.
The Steelers ranked 14th in points allowed and 13th in yards allowed, according to Pro Football Reference, their worst in both categories since LeBeau became defensive coordinator in 2004.
Shaun Suisham missed only two field goals all year, but they were costly 32- and 34-yarders in a three-point loss at Oakland.
Punting was a glaring weakness for the Steelers. Mat McBriar stabilized the position in the last nine games, but still was just 31st in the league with an average of 41.3 yards per punt, according to NFL.com. As a team, the Steelers were 31st in the NFL in both punting average (41.1 yards) and net average (35.7). They also were last with 17 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Felix Jones was nothing more than a warm body returning kickoffs. He was 62nd in the NFL with 22.2 yards per return. Team MVP Antonio Brown returned a punt for a touchdown in a win over the Bengals and was 12th in the league with 12.8 yards per return.
During their 0-4 start, the Steelers came out flat against the Chicago Bears, falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter, and the Minnesota Vikings, falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter.
The Steelers faced a 14-0 first-quarter deficit at Oakland in Week 8. Pryor’s 93-yard touchdown run to open the game was the longest TD run ever by a quarterback.
That suggests a lack of preparation. It didn’t help that Tomlin chose to fly the Steelers out to London two days before the game while the Vikings went out there the Tuesday before the game, giving them three more days to get used to the time change. The Steelers also flew to the West Coast the day before facing the Raiders.
Tomlin’s clock management this season wasn’t much better than his travel management, and he should have banned locker room table games for everyone as soon as the veterans said that the younger players couldn’t do it.
All that said, Tomlin took the Steelers from 0-4 to within about a foot of a playoff berth. That took some leadership.
Center Fernando Velasco, who also was on an 0-4 team with the Tennessee Titans in 2009, said it best.
“It shocked me, to be honest with you,” Velasco told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I’ve been 0-4 in my career, but it was a different kind of 0-4. The attitudes were still positive, coming to work every day, trying to get better.”