With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. Next up: The Pittsburgh Steelers.
After back-to-back 8-8 campaigns, the Steelers missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons for the first time since a three-year stretch from 1998-2000. Things couldn't have gotten off to a worse start; Pittsburgh stumbled to 0-4 out of the gate, including losses to Tennessee and Minnesota.
Before things got better there was an inexcusable loss to the Raiders and a blowout at the hands of the Patriots saw the Steelers reach the season's halfway point with a 2-6 record. The final eight games was a different story, however; the offensive line gelled, both the passing and running games benefitted, and the defense managed to create turnovers. A 6-2 finish wasn't enough to backdoor their way into the playoffs but it gave the organization hope heading into the offseason.
What went right
Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the league's best quarterbacks, even if the storyline for the first few months of the season was about how he and offensive coordinator Todd Haley didn't get along. It was something we heard in 2012, too, even though Roethlisberger was having a Player of the Year stretch through the first nine weeks before suffering a rib injury. A slow start in 2013 led to more speculation about the Big Ben-Haley dynamic, but the reality is that the Steelers' offense was in such disarray -- starting with the offensive line -- that Don Coryell couldn't have done much better than Haley.
Antonio Brown was another bright spot. Replacing Mike Wallace as the No. 1 receiver, Brown not only embraced that role, he emerged as one of the NFL's best young wideouts, earning his second Pro Bowl berth.
Then there was rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, who missed the first month of the season with a foot injury. His return provided instant offense out of the backfield, something that had been lacking during the 0-4 start. Last spring, Haley compared Bell to Eddie George, which, in retrospect, seems apt.
Along the offensive line, right guard David DeCastro was dominant at times and will only expected get better. Other bright spots included center Fernando Velasco, who was signed off the street after Maurkice Pouncey was lost in Week 1 to a knee injury. And left tackle Kelvin Beachum, a former seventh-round pick, was a pleasant surprise. He replaced struggling Mike Adams in Week 6 and never relinquished the job. He was more than serviceable protecting Roethlisberger's blind side and Beachum heads into the offseason with a firm grasp on the left tackle job.
Defensively, defensive end Cam Heyward finally showed his first-round pedigree. He went from a part-time player to becoming a big-time force along the Steelers' defensive line. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds is on a similar trajectory, although he will be an unrestricted free agent in March and the Steelers will have to decide if his future is in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
In the secondary, 32-year-old Troy Polamalu was healthy for 16 games (he played in just seven games in 2012) and he looked like, well, Troy Polamalu. Which is to say: buzzing around the line of scrimmage, flying through gaps (or over offensive linemen) and creating havoc in the backfield.
What went wrong
Dropping four straight to begin the season certainly didn't help the Steelers, but to their credit -- and unlike other struggling teams (like, say, the Redskins) -- coach Mike Tomlin kept his players focused and they rebounded with a strong final two months.
Still, the slow start was a function of several breakdowns: the offensive line lost Pouncey on the first series of the season and while Velasco played well, Mike Adams was among the worst left tackles in the league when the Steelers finally benched him after Week 4. But the organization still has high hopes for the former second-rounder and he'll likely enter OTAs as a backup at both tackle positions.
The running game was also nonexistent over that first month but that had more to do with bad luck than poor planning. Bell was sidelined with an injury and free-agent signing LaRod Stephens-Howling tore his ACL in Week 1. But once Bell returned in Week 6, so too did the rushing attack.
On defense, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley played in just 11 games. He graded out well, according to ProFootballFocus.com, but the problem is that a) he's missed 14 games the last three seasons, b) he will count $13.5 million against the salary cap in 2014, and c) the Steelers would love to keep the more productive Worilds.
Cornerback Ike Taylor, who was drafted in the same class as Polamalu in 2004, finally began to show his age. The 33-year-old often shadowed the opponents best receiver and he was often targeted, usually with disastrous results. During one forgettable three-week stretch, Taylor gave up 26 catches, 509 yards and four touchdowns to Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon and Torrey Smith. The Steelers will almost certainly ask Taylor to take a pay cut (his cap number is $11.9 million in '14, according to OvertheCap.com) or they could choose to release him outright.
Roethlisberger. He might do more with less than any other quarterback in the league. He overcame a terrible offensive line early in the season, and then benefitted from a Haley offense that stressed getting rid of the ball quickly. It also helped that Pittsburgh had young playmakers in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, but without Big Ben, this team would have been luck to win four games. As for the mid-season report that Roethlisberger was going to ask for a trade, that turned out to be bogus. The Steelers have every intention of re-upping Big Ben, if not this offseason then next.
The defense. As far as answers go, it's a cop out, but the reality is that there was a lot to like on both sides of the ball during the final eight games. That said, the defense, built around preventing the big play, spent plenty of Sunday afternoons chasing ball carriers down the field after a blown assignment or a missed tackle.
The Week 14 loss to the Dolphins encapsulated that perfectly. Midway through the 4th quarter and leading Miami 28-24, Pittsburgh had a 92.4 percent win probability, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Then, a 55-yard run by Daniel Thomas followed by a 12-yard touchdown pass to Charles Clay -- that included two missed tackles -- and the win probability had dropped to 17.9 percent.
In the end, the Steelers were Antonio Brown's left pinky toe away from pulling off the upset.
What's happened since the end of the season
As is usual around the South Side, it's been relatively quiet in recent weeks. Despite reports during the season, Haley remains the offensive coordinator, although first-year offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was replaced with former Titans coach and Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak.
The expectation is that Munchak, who was responsible for some dominating offensive lines when he was with the Titans (as both the o-line coach and later the head coach), will not only bring the zone-blocking scheme to Pittsburgh a year later than expected, but will make this relatively young group more consistent on a play-to-play basis. That trickle-down effect means Roethlisberger takes few hits and more holes for the running game.
Running backs coach Kirby Wilson also left the team to join Mike Zimmer's staff in Minnesota.
Impending free agents
The biggest name is Worilds, whom the Steelers will try to re-sign, perhaps even before the start of free agency next month. Other notables include: wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones, offensive lineman Fernando Velasco, defensive linemen Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel and Al Woods, and safety Ryan Clark.
Free-agency game plan
You may have heard something about the team wanting to keep Worilds, who had his best NFL season in 2013, which coincided with him moving from right to left outside linebacker in place of the injured Woodley.
Despite concerns that dumping Woodley would be cost-prohibitive, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette writes that, "If they cut Woodley today, he would count $14.17 million on their salary cap this year, nearly a wash for what he will count -- $13.59 million -- if you keep him. But by cutting him now, he is wiped off their books for 2015 and 2016 and for a team that many say is in salary-cap hell, that's a significant cap savings -- a total of $25.5 million (his salaries) in both real money and cap savings over three seasons with none of it counting after this one."
The Steelers are expected to move on from Clark, 34, but could look to find a starter, perhaps in the secondary, through free agency. (Of course, this is where you point out that the team would've been smarter to just re-sign Keenan Lewis last offseason and let Ike Taylor walk. We're guessing the front office and coaching staff are well aware of this.)
Sanders also probably won't be back; the Steelers will turn to second-year wideout Markus Wheaton, and they could also re-sign the veteran Cotchery, who had 10 touchdowns last season.
If the price is right, Pittsburgh could also try to bring back Velasco, Dwyer and Hood to add depth.
Draft game plan
The knee-jerk reaction is to say that the Steelers need to bolster the offensive line, but that group is in relatively good shape. The secondary (particularly cornerback) the defensive line (particularly nose tackle), and wide receiver are all higher up on the to-do list, at least in the first round.
And that reality explains the make-believe world of mock drafts. The latest from NFLDraftScout.com and CBSSports.com has the Steelers, with the No. 15 pick, taking Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix (Rob Rang and Pete Prisco), Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Dane Brugler), and Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy (Pat Kirwan).
Ridiculously premature prediction for 2014
The Steelers finished the 2013 season on a 6-2 run and are expected to lose few key players to free agency. A strong draft followed by a good start to 2014 should put them right back in the playoff conversation.
Predicted record: 10-6