For the second year in a row, Pittsburgh Steelers fans were subjected to a longer offseason than expected.
That’s what happens when the Steelers don’t make the playoffs and the season ends in December.
Nearly seven of those eight excruciating months have passed, and the appetizer to the Steelers’ long-awaited 2014 season will be served beginning Friday, when the team reports to training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.
After two straight 8-8 seasons, the Steelers will try to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. That would shorten the 2015 offseason by at least a week.
For that to happen, however, the following questions must be answered in the affirmative.
1. Will There Be Enough Depth Behind Antonio Brown at Wide Receiver?
There’s Antonio Brown, who had 110 receptions for a franchise-record 1,499 yards last season. Then there are four players who could fall anywhere from a No. 2 receiver to a total flameout.
Markus Wheaton was hampered by a broken pinkie and caught just six passes in his rookie season. Lance Moore, signed as a free agent from New Orleans, had a down year with 37 catches last season. But he’s ranked in the top 10 in catch percentage when he’s targeted in three of the last four seasons, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The speedy Darrius Heyward-Bey, a former top-10 draft pick by the Oakland Raiders, is an enigma. The Steelers will be his third team in the last three seasons. The 6’4″ Martavis Bryant, a fourth-round draft pick in May, is the tall receiver Ben Roethlisberger has yearned for, but he has to prove that he has the work ethic to succeed in the NFL.
Derek Moye will have to fight off challenges from Justin Brown, Danny Coale, C.J. Goodwin, Lanear Sampson and Kashif Moore to keep his roster spot.
Lance Moore, who will be 31 at the end of August, could provide a steadying veteran presence as a 5’9″ possession receiver. Wheaton could make a big second-year leap. Bryant could use his length to become an effective red-zone weapon. Heyward-Bey, 27, could return to his 64-reception form of 2011 and use his 4.3 40-yard-dash speed to become a deep threat.
The Steelers need at least two of those scenarios to come to fruition. If not, Antonio Brown will see a lot of double coverage.
2. Can the Offensive Line Pick Up Where It Left Off Last Year?
Mike Munchak has been the rock star of the Steelers’ coaching staff during the offseason. The Hall of Fame guard was hired as the Steelers’ offensive line coach in January after being fired as head coach of the Tennessee Titans. Munchak was the Titans’ offensive line coach from 1997-2010 and led his charges to 10 Pro Bowls during that time.
The Steelers’ offensive line started to coalesce late last season. After being sacked 35 times in the first nine games of 2013, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just seven times in the last seven games. It was the best protection he received during any seven-game stretch in his career.
The line even started to open holes for the Steelers’ maligned rushing attack in December. For the season, the Steelers were 27th in the league with 1,383 rushing yards and tied for 29th with 3.5 yards per attempt. They cracked the 100-yard barrier in each of the last three games, however, and averaged just over four yards a carry as they closed the season with three straight wins.
If the offensive line can make all these improvements without Maurkice Pouncey, imagine what it can do with him. Pouncey is back after David DeCastro inadvertently ended his season in the opener last year. DeCastro, the Steelers’ starting right guard, is knocking on the Pro Bowl’s door. Left guard Ramon Foster gave up the fewest quarterback hits and quarterback hurries among the regular starters last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
If there are any position battles on the line, they’ll come at the tackle spots. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert was responsible for 11 sacks and 30 hurries. The 6’3″, 306-pound Kelvin Beachum isn’t a prototypical left tackle, but of the seven sacks he allowed last year, only one came in his last six games.
Mike Adams, who doesn’t have to recover from a stabbing this summer, will try to win one of those jobs. The Steelers used a second-round draft pick on him in 2010, so he at least needs to provide valuable depth to give the Steelers a return on their investment.
The line already was heading in the right direction before the Munchak coup and Pouncey’s return. Of all these burning questions, this one is the most likely to be answered with a yes.
3. Can the Steelers Get Back to Their Old Sacking Ways?
The answer to this question depends on Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.
Three years after leading the NFL with 48 sacks and reaching Super Bowl XLV in 2010, the Steelers registered just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990.
Worilds provided a glimmer of hope with seven sacks in the second half of the 2013 season. However, he had just 10 sacks in his first three seasons combined and hasn’t proven that he can put together a full season as a legitimate pass-rushing threat. The Steelers have him signed for 2014 at $9.75 million under the transition tag. They haven’t agreed to a long-term deal with Worilds, so perhaps playing out a contract year will motivate him to hound opposing quarterbacks the way he did in November and December.
Jones, a first-round draft pick, enters his second season. If he doesn’t improve on his one-sack rookie year, the “bust” whispers will get louder. Jones does have one more sack in one year than backup outside linebacker Chris Carter has in three years. Arthur Moats was signed from Buffalo as a free agent. He can play both inside and outside linebacker, but he hasn’t had a sack since 2011.
If Jones can’t get to the quarterback, Worilds will draw extra blockers on the other side, and for the fourth year in a row quarterbacks will have little reason to fear the Steelers’ defense.
4. Will the Steelers Get Immediate Contributions from Any Rookies?
Le’Veon Bell emerged late last season, but not since Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 has a Steelers rookie made an impact from Day 1. That’s also the last year the Steelers reached the Super Bowl.
Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round pick, is earmarked to start at inside linebacker. That would make him the Steelers’ first opening-day starter on defense since Kendrell Bell in 2001. Shazier ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at his Ohio State pro day and led all NFL Scouting Combine performers with a 42-inch vertical leap. If he can lock up a starting job in camp, his athleticism would be a welcome addition to the Steelers’ sagging defense.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who the Steelers chose in the second round out of Notre Dame, appeared raw during spring workouts, according to Steel City Insider (subscription required). Third-rounder Dri Archer, a running back-wide receiver hybrid, was the fastest player at the combine with a 4.26 40-yard dash. The 5’8″, 173-pounder could provide some highlight-reel material, but he’s not an every-down player. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is the Steelers’ only other rookie with a realistic chance of making an immediate impact. He slipped to the fourth round after struggling with maturity and dropped passes at Clemson. He’s a boom-or-bust draft pick.
5. Will the Steelers’ Punting Improve?
The Steelers were 25th in the league last season in opponents’ average starting field position, according to Football Outsiders. Their shoddy punting had a lot to do with that. They were 31st with 41.1 yards per punt.
To address the problem, the Steelers signed the punter from the only team that averaged fewer yards per punt.
Adam Podlesh averaged a career-low 40.6 yards per punt for the Chicago Bears in 2013. In his seven-year career, he’s averaged 42.4 yards per punt. Podlesh will compete against 23-year-old Australian Brad Wing, who averaged 44.6 yards per punt in two years at LSU, but ran into some off-the-field problems.
A defense in transition could use some help from the punting game, and it looks like Wing straightening out his act is the Steelers’ best hope.