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Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios and Predictions for 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers

Spoiler alert.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will not start the 2014 season with an 0-4 record.

Even in the worst-case scenario, the Steelers will win at least one game in September, something they couldn’t do last season. Of course that still leaves plenty of room for doom and gloom for those who look at two straight 8-8 seasons and see the glass as half empty.

Before we get to that, we’ll look at the Steelers’ 2014 season through the eyes of those who see the glass as half full.

In both cases, we’ll provide win-loss predictions for each game. Then we’ll reveal our actual prediction for the season, with win-loss prognostications and explanations for each game.

Best Case

The Steelers put a lot of points on the scoreboard, and more often than not the defense is good enough to allow fewer points than the Steelers score, even if the defense doesn’t compare to the vintage 2005, 2008 and 2010 units.

Ben Roethlisberger becomes a top-five NFL quarterback running the no-huddle offense behind an offensive line that allows him to be sacked less than 30 times, the first time that’s happened since 2005.

Antonio Brown again approaches the 100-catch neighborhood because opposing defenses also have to worry about Markus Wheaton, who makes major strides in his second season.

Le’Veon Bell becomes the Steelers’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Rashard Mendenhall in 2010, the last year the Steelers reached the Super Bowl. LeGarrette Blount adds a few touchdowns in goal-line situations to boost the Steelers’ red-zone efficiency.

It also doesn’t hurt that Heath Miller is healthy in September, unlike last season.

On defense, first-round pick Ryan Shazier is a rookie-of-the-year candidate while Jason Worilds lights up quarterbacks in his contract year. All the attention blockers focus on Worilds frees up Jarvis Jones to pick up a half-dozen or so sacks in his second season.

The improved pass rush helps the Steelers force more takeaways in 2014 than the 20 they’ve been stuck on the past two seasons.

The Steelers look like geniuses bringing back Brett Keisel. He stabilizes a defensive line that was iffy in the preseason while Cameron Heyward makes splash plays in his first season as a full-time starter.

The front seven makes it easier for the Steelers’ suspect secondary, although Troy Polamalu shows that he’s an old dog who can still hunt and Mike Mitchell proves to be the ballhawk he was in Carolina. Perhaps Cortez Allen will be motivated to earn big bucks in free agency and play with more consistency.

Best-case win-loss predictions:

Week 1, Cleveland, W (24-7)

Week 2, At Baltimore, L (17-13)

Week 3, At Carolina, L (23-10)

Week 4, Tampa Bay, W (35-7)

Week 5, At Jacksonville, W (27-13)

Week 6, At Cleveland, W (29-14)

Week 7, Houston, W (21-0)

Week 8, Indianapolis, L (35-34)

Week 9, Baltimore, W (14-12)

Week 10, At Jets, L (19-16)

Week 11, At Tennessee, W (33-21)

Week 12, Bye

Week 13, New Orleans, W (44-37)

Week 14, At Cincinnati, L (30-27)

Week 15, At Atlanta, W (37-17)

Week 16, Kansas City, W (16-7)

Week 17, Cincinnati, W (34-15)

Record: 11-5

Worst Case

The biggest mystery facing the Steelers’ offense this season is whether or not anyone can establish himself as the second receiver to complement Antonio Brown.

If Markus Wheaton starts to hear “bust” whispers, if Darrius Heyward-Bey suffers another concussion and if the 31-year-old Lance Moore has nothing left, Brown will be draped by double-teams and the Steelers will wish they re-signed Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.

Martavis Bryant could turn out to be a plug-and-play rookie and Justin Brown could contribute after spending a year on the practice squad, but the Steelers are in trouble if they have to turn to either of them.

As long as Antonio Brown is neutralized, defenses can load up the box to stop Le’Veon Bell. Although the Steelers don’t have to worry about the interior of their offensive line, Mike Munchak will have a difficult time working his magic if Kelvin Beachum can no longer overcome his size limitations at left tackle and Marcus Gilbert (who was never that great to begin with) stagnates at right tackle with his fat new contract.

While it shows potential, the Steelers’ defense experiences growing pains and is still a liability.

Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas, the Steelers’ top two free-agent signings on defense, turn out to be duds. Mitchell already had a rough preseason. The Steelers will be vulnerable against the run with a defensive line that includes a disappointing Thomas and Brett Keisel looking every bit of his 36 years.

Even though Jason Worilds emerged last year with seven sacks in the second half of the season, quarterbacks won’t shake in their cleats until he puts together a full season of sack production. If Worilds’ performance in the second half of 2013 is fool’s gold, it will hinder Jarvis Jones and he’ll again be able to count his sacks on one hand.

Ryan Shazier still will be OK, but he won’t be rookie-of-the-year material and he’ll have trouble covering tight ends.

Even in the aforementioned best-case scenario, 34-year-old Ike Taylor is a shell of his former self. But the front seven covered that weakness. In this case, he’ll be exposed. And the Steelers will have made the right decision in not re-signing Cortez Allen.

Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons remain the constants on defense regardless of how good or bad the team is. Timmons could even earn a long-overdue Pro Bowl honor. As long as Polamalu stays healthy and doesn’t have to play linebacker, he’ll be his normal, disruptive self. The only difference is that he’ll be yelling at his teammates a lot more on the sidelines.

Worst-case win-loss predictions:

Week 1, Cleveland, W (24-17)

Week 2, At Baltimore, L (27-10)

Week 3, At Carolina, L (25-12)

Week 4, Tampa Bay, W (28-7)

Week 5, At Jacksonville, L (33-27, OT)

Week 6, At Cleveland, L (24-23)

Week 7, Houston, W (26-7)

Week 8, Indianapolis, L (35-34)

Week 9, Baltimore, L (15-14)

Week 10, At Jets, L (22-9)

Week 11, At Tennessee, L (23-17)

Week 12, Bye

Week 13, New Orleans, L (44-37)

Week 14, At Cincinnati, L (30-14)

Week 15, At Atlanta, L (38-31)

Week 16, Kansas City, W (16-7)

Week 17, Cincinnati, W (13-7)

Record: 5-11

What Will Actually Happen

Let’s start with game-by-game (records after each game in parentheses):

Week 1, Cleveland, W (20-10)

For the first time since 2008, the Steelers win their season opener without needing overtime. (1-0)

Week 2, At Baltimore, L (16-14)

The Steelers face Steve Smith’s new team a week before facing his old team. The 35-year-old receiver isn’t going to make the Ravens an offensive juggernaut. Nonetheless, the Steelers haven’t won at Baltimore before December since 2002. (1-1)

Week 3, At Carolina, L (22-15)

Carolina won’t miss Mike Mitchell as the defense puts a lid on the Steelers’ no-huddle. (1-2)

Week 4, Tampa Bay, W (23-10)

Even Jarvis Jones might get a sack against the Bucs’ shoddy offensive line. (2-2)

Week 5, At Jacksonville, W (21-13)

Blake Bortles will be starting by Week 5, and Dick LeBeau improves to 18-2 against rookie quarterbacks. (3-2)

Week 6, At Cleveland, L (17-16)

Another rookie QB, another win for the Steelers, right? Wrong. Johnny Manziel makes his debut and goes all Tebow on the Steelers. (3-3)

Week 7, Houston, W (30-3)

No matter which Ryan starts at quarterback (Fitzpatrick or Mallett), there’s no hope for the Texans. (4-3)

Week 8, Indianapolis, L (38-37)

Defense is thrown out the window as Andrew Luck out-duels Ben Roethlisberger. (4-4)

Week 9, Baltimore, W (19-18)

The Steelers defend their home turf in the rivalry as a Ravens-Steelers game is decided by three points or less for the sixth straight time. (5-4)

Week 10, At Jets, L (24-20)

If the Jets could get to 8-8 last season with the rookie version of Geno Smith, they’ll get to the playoffs this year with Chris Johnson and Eric Decker added to the offense. (5-5)

Week 11, At Tennessee, L (23-17)

The Steelers are 2-8 at Tennessee since the franchise moved there in 1997. Make it 2-9. The bye week can’t come soon enough. (5-6)

Week 12, Bye

Week 13, New Orleans, W (42-40)

The last time Roethlisberger and Drew Brees met at Heinz Field, the Steelers won a 38-31 shootout in 2006. This will make that shootout seem like a water-pistol fight. The Steelers will be fresh off their bye while the Saints will be coming off a Monday-night game at home against the Ravens. This win puts the Steelers back in the thick of the playoff race. (6-6)

Week 14, At Cincinnati, L (23-14)

And the Steelers’ playoff chances take a hit as they lose at Cincinnati two years in a row for the first time since 1989 and 1990. (6-7)

Week 15, At Atlanta, L (35-28)

Everyone assumes the Falcons’ 4-12 record last year was an aberration. They won’t be much better this season, but their offense will be potent enough to solve a Steelers defense that again will need some attention in the draft. (6-8)

Week 16, Kansas City, W (17-9)

A brutal schedule that includes Denver twice, Seattle, San Francisco and New England will leave the Chiefs with nothing to play for by the time they get to Heinz Field. The Steelers, on the other hand, weren’t out of playoff contention at 6-8 last season. They keep their playoff hopes flickering here. (7-8)

Week 17, Cincinnati, W (21-17)

The best the Steelers can do is play spoiler here. They could ruin the Bengals’ shot at a first-round bye in the playoffs and put them in danger of losing the wild-card game for the fourth straight year. (8-8)

Analysis

The Steelers will join the Green Bay Packers (1983-85), Houston Oilers (1996-98) and Dallas Cowboys (2011-13) as the only NFL franchises to go 8-8 in three straight seasons. The Cowboys’ streak could reach four years in 2014.

Pittsburgh finally will be able to move the ball on the ground with Bell and Blount, and Roethlisberger might just play every snap for a second straight year as the offensive line becomes a strength. But the lack of a true No. 2 receiver will tether this offense and maybe cost Todd Haley his job. Someone will have to take the blame for another season that ends in December.

No longer will the defense be old and slow. It will be tenacious, but also inconsistent. The Steelers won’t regret drafting Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt or even Jarvis Jones. But those youngsters will make their share of mistakes.

As far as the secondary goes, well, don’t expect the Steelers to ignore cornerback again in the draft. They could get a pretty good one with one of the top 20 picks in the first round.

If Cameron Heyward continues his upward trajectory and Jones, Shazier and a first-round defensive player in 2015 all pan out, the Steelers will have the cornerstones in place for a defense that helps them finish above .500 one of these years.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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1 comment

  1. charles maftin

    Aberration for the Steelers as they enter the playoffs with #5 ranked O. Defense goood enough and rookies Tuitt and McKullers getting better each game starting to put good pressure on qb. Steelers a team that is playing its best football at the end of the season and has a good a chance as anyone at being the last team standing!

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