Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

23 Aug 2012

Andy Benoit Previews the Steelers

by Andy Benoit

(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)

This past offseason gave us a smorgasbord of examples of why the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the best-run organizations in professional sports. There was Mike Tomlin getting his contract extended through 2016, continuing the organization’s unparalleled tradition of head coaching stability under the Rooney Family. There was Kevin Colbert, the most underrated (if not best) general manager in pro football, playing hardball with restricted free agent Mike Wallace. Wallace is a bourgeoning star receiver, but not someone the organization is going to overpay to keep. Locking up Antonio Brown, who signed a new six-year contract before his value escalated further, was the lesson learned from Wallace's situation. There was a legendary receiver, Hall of Fame candidate Hines Ward, being ushered into the sunset with a hero’s farewell.

There were more off-the-field stories about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, though this time of a flattering nature. The 30-year-old announced that he would soon become a father, roughly a year after marrying Ashley Harlan of Western Pennsylvania. More importantly (from a football standpoint) were the stories of Roethlisberger hitting the books to learn the system of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Haley’s arrival came after the somewhat bizarre dismissal of Bruce Arians, whom Tomlin claims he himself, and not Art Rooney II, decided to let go. The drama from that episode quickly breezed over, as will the drama about whether Haley’s "fiery personality" can fit the Steeler culture. Haley is the first outside hire at offensive coordinator in 13 years.

There were also the more mundane stories about the rehab efforts of running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton, both of whom tore ACLs in January. Many expect their replacements, Isaac Redman and Steve McLendon, to have breakout seasons because, well, that’s just what happens when the Steelers promote from within.

The only un-Steelerlike story this past offseason was the draft Colbert put together. Usually the Steelers find players who will start two or three years down the road. This year, he found two guys expected to start right away: first-round guard David DeCastro and second-round tackle Mike Adams. No need to worry about whether Colbert & Co. are starting to impatiently drift away from their modus operandi This deviation is expected to turn the team’s only true weakness into a strength. That’s what makes the Steelers great: they stick to their methods without shackling themselves.

OFFENSE

Maybe Todd Haley does have a "fiery personality." So what? He also has outstanding play-calling acumen. And in Pittsburgh he has something that he had in Arizona but didn’t have in Kansas City: a great quarterback.

Three years ago, Haley probably couldn’t have worked with Ben Roethlisberger. The aloof young passer made his living off sheer physical talent and uncanny improvisational skills. His brute strength and unbelievable raw throwing ability allowed for this. That’s something that’s not talked about enough with Roethlisberger: his throwing ability. We can’t help but focus on the brute strength that allows him to run around and shed would-be sackers before making seemingly ugly, but indisputably effective, game-changing plays. While our eyes are on that, we fail to recognize the ninth-year star’s brilliant passing on those plays. Roethlisberger doesn’t just make tough throws – he makes tough throws that are perfect in precision and velocity. Much of that is due to his uncanny ability to keep his eyes downfield while avoiding the rush.

Anyway, these are phenomenal athletic quarterbacking tools, but in the grander scheme of things, they’re often not enough to foster a sustainable offensive juggernaut. There’s too much randomness for the quarterback’s teammates and coaches to deal with.

Roethlisberger today is different. He’s become a much smarter, fundamentally sounder, quarterback. He has better defensive recognition before the snap and, thus, a greater willingness to make timing-based throws within the structure of the offense after the snap. Yes, of course he’s still often a sandlot quarterback. That’s his style, and he should keep it until the day he can no longer move around (which, despite the myriad hits and injuries he’s sustained, does not appear to be on the horizon just yet). But Roethlisberger is no longer only a sandlot quarterback, which is why the Steelers felt comfortable replacing his easy-going coach, Bruce Arians, with the more controlling-but-innovative Haley.

There’s a lot of undue concern that Haley will drastically alter a system that was really never broken in Pittsburgh. But what’s earned Haley a favorable reputation around the league is the creativity he shows in tweaking his system to fit his personnel. With Kurt Warner in Arizona, Haley had an ingenious field-reading quarterback with a quick release and a bad offensive line. So, he built a shotgun offense centered around three-and five-step passing. In Kansas City, Haley had a resoundingly average quarterback in Matt Cassel but a superb backfield duo in methodical Thomas Jones and speedy Jamaal Charles. So, he built a multi-tight end offense centered around an exterior run game.

Expect Haley to blend his Cardinals and Chiefs systems in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is very comfortable in the shotgun, and at this stage of his career, he can become an adept quick-drop passer. What’s great is, unlike in Arizona, Haley’s team also has a robust rushing attack and a stingy defense that can be counted on. The Steelers will likely strive for balance and control by continuing to use plenty of base two tight end personnel.

Haley plans on making his tight ends a bigger part of the passing game, which will give the offense even more dimension. The soft-handed Heath Miller is an excellent receiver underneath; don’t be surprised if he splits out more and runs routes further downfield this season. Accompanying Miller will be Leonard Pope, who played for Haley in Arizona and Kansas City. Pope is a serviceable receiver but, like Miller, he’s an even better blocker. Also worthy of snaps is third-string tight end Weslye Saunders, who proved to be an athletic mismatch creator, particularly in the red zone, as an undrafted rookie last season.

Obviously, like he did in Arizona, Haley is going to make the wide receivers the primary focus of his passing attack. His current trio of Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders has a chance to be every bit as good as Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Early Doucet were. People tend to think of Wallace as the No. 1 target because his long-striding speed and acceleration puts the fear of God in defensive backs. But the 27-year-old receiver has not progressed enough as a route runner at this point. Wallace may have cracked the 1,000-yard mark again last season, but his inconsistent mechanics were why he was held to 70 or fewer yards in eight of his last nine games.

Brown is actually the Steelers’ best receiver. He’s a tremendous route runner, both when things are structured early in the down and when things break down late. Last season, Brown was the guy Roethlisberger trusted most on crucial third downs. This season, he could share that role with Sanders, whom Roethlisberger seemed to grow fond of in multiple-receiver sets down the stretch in 2010. Knee and foot problems hounded Sanders last year, but if healthy, he has the darting quickness and innate ball skills to dominate as a No. 3. If Wallace stages a prolonged holdout, he’ll become the X-receiver. Rounding out the receiving unit is steady veteran Jerricho Cotchery, who is very good over the middle.

The run game that Haley is expected to make full use of will likely feature Isaac Redman early on, as former first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall is recovering from a Week 17 ACL tear. Some believe Redman, an undrafted third-year pro, will be better than Mendenhall anyway. He has great physicality in finishing his runs inside. The question is: can he offer what the speedier and subtly powerful Mendenhall did on the outside? Aside from diminutive fifth-round rookie Chris Rainey, the Steelers don’t have any options for outside running. Jonathan Dwyer (who appears to finally be in shape, shedding his reputation for being perpetually overweight) is the No. 2 running back, with converted fullback John Clay likely to be the third back until Mendenhall returns. Also, Steeler observers are high on Baron Batch, who lit up camp as a seventh-rounder last season before tearing his ACL.

For the first time in ages, the Steelers expect to aid all of these skill position players with coherent, consistent blocking up front. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler must be salivating: four of his five starters are young first-or second-round picks. The only one who isn’t is Willie Colon who, prior to missing the past two seasons with injuries, was one of the brighter up-and-comers in the league. The short-armed Colon is moving from right tackle to the better-fitting left guard spot, where he’ll be an upgrade over predecessors Ramon Foster (lacks quickness) and Doug Legursky (lacks size and phone booth power).

As for the high-drafted youngsters ... smart, nimble center Maurkice Pouncey is the gem, having made first team All-Pro in just his second season. Rookie left tackle Mike Adams has a world of talent, it’s just a matter of whether he continues to mature. The Steelers removed him from their draft board after he lied about drug use, but Adams requested a meeting with Colbert and successfully bid for a second chance. If he blows it, the Steelers can turn to the once-again-recently-resigned Max Starks, who always seems to find his way back into the lineup. On the right side, first-round rookie David DeCastro is considered to be the best guard in this year’s draft. At tackle, second-rounder Marcus Gilbert showed improvements in his movement and balance as his 2011 rookie season wore on, but he still has plenty of room to grow.

DEFENSE

Unlike the offense, Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme has not changed much in recent years. It hasn’t had to. Legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did, however, make one surprising alteration (or expansion) to his 3-4 last season. The Father of the Zone Blitz concocted several gameplans built around man coverage. Most notable was the Wild Card game at Denver, which Tim Tebow shockingly made them pay for. (I can’t blame LeBeau and his players for going press-man in that game; the only way they could have lost was if Tebow made a few incredible throws that he had never made before ... it just so happens he did exactly that.)

The man coverage schemes worked well at times (versus the Patriots, for example), but at their core, the Steelers are a zone defense and will play that way in 2012. The fact that they are able to mix their coverages more these days just speaks to their underrated talent at cornerback. It’s too bad that Ike Taylor had what may have been the worst game of his career on the big stage against Tebow, because the 10-year veteran is really one of the best all-around defensive players in the NFL. Taylor plays the run well and routinely shadows the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, often winning the battle with his strength early in the down. Unlike most corners, Taylor can be a shadow-man defender outside and inside.

Opposite Taylor will likely be Keenan Lewis, a fourth-year pro who got promoted from nickelback after the departures of William Gay and Bryant McFadden. Lewis’s promotion puts a strain on Pittsburgh’s depth, though ostensibly the Steelers believe that last year’s mid-round picks, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, will be ready to step up. Really only one of them has to, considering the Steelers use backup safety Ryan Mundy as a dime back. Expect Allen to get the nod -– many believe he could even challenge Lewis for starter’s duties.

Playing ahead of Mundy is future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu and widely admired veteran Ryan Clark. Both players can operate in the box or back deep in space. Polamalu’s unique talent lends him unprecedented freedom to roam around and play his own game. He couldn’t operate this way if not for the highly intelligent Clark stabilizing the rest of the secondary. This season, Polamalu’s free-lancing needs to generate more turnovers. Shockingly, the Steelers last season ranked dead last in this department, despite having the league’s No. 1 ranked defense in terms of scoring and yardage.

Consider the low turnover count to be an aberration, perhaps due to injuries at outside linebackers. LaMarr Woodley missed six games; James Harrison missed five games, one to suspension. This took some of the edge off this normally ferocious pass-rush. If Woodley and Harrison are healthy, this defense will be fine. Both are tremendous power players who are still fast enough to turn the corner. They’re not one-dimensional, either. LeBeau is more than willing to having them set the edge for run support or even drop back to cover the flats (a staple zone blitz concept). If either player should be unavailable at some point, the Steelers can turn to their sinewy Woodley ersatz, Jason Worilds. Also, in a bind, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is capable of sliding outside.

Though Woodley and Harrison can be vicious bookend pass-rushers, the Steelers prefer to generate pressure primarily through design, not execution. When in its base 3-4, this is a fairly mundane defense. It’s in the 2-4-5 and 3-3-5 sub packages that this team gets in its complex attack mode.

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Polamalu is usually a big part of the "attack mode," as is Timmons and fellow inside linebacker Larry Foote. In fact, Timmons, with his explosive first step and momentum-building speed, is one of the best inside blitzers in the game. Foote, like James Farrior before him, is very good at choosing angles and timing his burst. Those are critical skills to have in a system that relies heavily on the teamwork of guys opening up pass-rushing lanes and eating blockers for each other. Foote should play tons of snaps this season, though coaches are said to be high on third-round rookie Sean Spence.

One reason the Steelers got burned in Denver was that they played Cover 0, which meant they brought both safeties into the box for run support, leaving risky one-on-one scenarios for the cornerbacks. You can’t help but wonder if LeBeau would have reacted this aggressively to a rushing game like Denver’s the previous year, when Pittsburgh had the league’s No. 1 ranked run defense. Pittsburgh’s run defense fell to eighth last season, mainly because the front seven struggled against the lateral movement of good zone-blocking teams.

Having nose tackle Casey Hampton out of the lineup early doesn’t figure to help matters. However, fans may be pleasantly surprised by replacement Steve McLendon. The undrafted fourth-year veteran was listed at just 280 pounds last year (an estimated 40-90 pounds less than Hampton, depending on lunch), but he’s said to be tipping the scales at well over 300 these days. McLendon proved excellent at stalemating and disengaging from blockers in spot duty last season. The bigger question is whether fourth-round rookie Alameda Ta’amu can contribute right away, as McLendon will likely need to rest every third series.

The key to Pittsburgh’s run defense has always been the defensive ends’ ability to win in two gaps. Brett Keisel does this in unusual fashion, relying on agility instead of power. Keisel will start on the right side, while recent first-round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward compete on the left. Hood claims he replaced 18 pounds of fat with 20 pounds of muscle over the offseason. That’s good –- maybe now he’ll play with consistent leverage. That’s also what was missing from Heyward as a rookie last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Shaun Suisham was just 23-of-31 on field goals in 2011. Can’t blame the notoriously unfriendly kicking environment of Heinz Field; four of Suisham’s misses came at home and four came on the road. With Daniel Sepulveda unable to stay healthy, the Steelers have turned over their punting duties to Jeremy Kapinos. He averaged a respectable 45 yards per boot last year. Antonio Brown is coming off the first ever 1,000-yard return season for a 1,000-yard receiver. Brown averaged 10.8 yards on punts and 27.3 yards on kickoffs, though it’s possible Emmanuel Sanders will resume kick return duties this season.

BOTTOM LINE

The offensive line should improve exponentially over the course of 2012. That could make the offense as a whole borderline unstoppable. And this for a team that should again have one of the league’s stingiest defenses.

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 23 Aug 2012

20 comments, Last at 26 Aug 2012, 6:59pm by BywaterBrat

Comments

1
by T-Dub (not verified) :: Fri, 08/24/2012 - 4:31am

If the Steelers start the season with a surprising number of groin injuries, blame Andy Benoit swinging from their jocks like the Flying Wallendas. I know they're one of the better teams, but is their entire squad really All-Pro quality? Apparently the rest of the league should just take the year off.

2
by Vicious Chicken Of Bristol (not verified) :: Fri, 08/24/2012 - 9:05am

Not sure where he said everyone was AllPro. He mentioned a few that undeniably are, and pointed out a few underrated players.

He also pointed out potential weakness on the Dline and average special teams.

One thing he misses is that Adams is certainly not a lock at LT and that Starks has all but assumed the role.

It is hard not to be high on them, they have had one major weakness over the last several years and that is O-line. Even without Adams being an instant success this year's line (barring injury) is going to be solidly above average. That is scary.

And face it, a unhealthy, injury riddled Steelers defense was still #1 last year. If they are healthy...also scary.

3
by drobviousso :: Fri, 08/24/2012 - 10:54am

The original article was written before we saw Adams play in preseason. Reports out of camp were that he could start game 1.

4
by Swan Jaco (not verified) :: Fri, 08/24/2012 - 1:52pm

Wow, wasn't expecting a puff-piece like this. Just fit them for their SB rings now I suppose.

7
by t.d. :: Fri, 08/24/2012 - 8:08pm

well, no, but in the source article, he did pick them to make the Super Bowl (and lose it, to Green Bay, again)

5
by Intropy :: Fri, 08/24/2012 - 3:04pm

Where I think he is too optimistic:
-I think he's too high on Adams and Worilds, the former of whom has played poorly in the preseason (and that's okay, he's a rookie so him starting is a bonus) and the latter of whom has played decently in games but keeps getting injured.
-Timmons technically can slide outside, but he's ineffective there.
-I haven't seen much from Spence to suggest he's going to be good this year (again that's fine for a rookie).
-Clay is hurt, and I don't think he was on his way to making the team anyway.
Pope is serviceable, maybe, as a receiver, but he's a poor blocker.
-I've no problems with Foote, but I think he's an aging, average player.
-Maybe Hood will play with leverage, but being stronger is no guarantee of that. I suspect he's past the point in his development where great improvements are likely. I expect him to come out and be an average player, not a bust, but somewhat disappointing as a first rounder.
-Cotchery is decent, and I like him a lot as a 4th receiver, but I think "very good over the middle" is a bit too positive a review.
-Weslye Saunders hasn't proven anything. He's shown some talent, but in relatively limited time. The jury is out on him.
-Kick and punt coverage are poor.

Too pessimistic:
-Cortez Allen has demonstrated quite a bit of promise. He's still early in the development curve, and I'm not sure he's ready to start, but I expect him to be good at the nickel role.
-Drew Butler has looked decent punting this preseason.

6
by theslothook :: Fri, 08/24/2012 - 5:32pm

One unheralded thing people forget is, while other teams are built with run the ball play good defensive philosophies(baltimore, sf), pitt is the only defensive oriented franchise that routinely has good receivers. In the early 2000s, it was plaxico and ward, then it led to santonio and ward, then wallace and santonio, and now wallace and antonio brown. Considering how many years teams go without finding receivers like this(see the chicago bears or the browns for evidence), its really remarkable.

Theres always something fascinating about the steelers. Despite all the parity and structure that tries to weaken really good teams, the steelers never seem to do that. Think about it, they were a dynasty in the 70s, mediocre but not terrible in the 80s, superbowl contenders in the 90s and superbowl contenders in 2000 and are still superbowl contenders at the beginning of this decade. This goes on and on year after year after year. Remarkable.

8
by Paddy Pat :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 2:50am

I thought there was some reason to consider the possibility that Roethlisberger might begin to slow down. Someone here on FO wrote about the fact that there aren't many good comparison players for quarterbacks who take lots hits and have a bruising style. Despite what Benoit says here about Roethlisberger being a much improved pocket passer, the last few games in 2011 seemed to demonstrate that Roethlisberger loses quite a bit when he can't improvise. Not taking anything from Pittsburgh's defense, and Mike Wallace is frightening, but if Roethlisberger falls off even a little... well, maybe an improved offensive line will make up the difference. I just have a hard time seeing the Steelers really dominate. They haven't had a dominating season since 2004. They've won Super Bowls in that span, but they were never even the top seed.

9
by theslothook :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 3:03am

they were a 2nd seed in both 2008 and 2010. Now granted they weren't the top seed, but being a 2 seed is a pretty tough thing all things considered. And when you consider which teams have been repeat 1 seeds since 2004- your list really is relegated to just the colts and pats- and all know what those teams have in common

10
by Vicious Chicken of Bristol (not verified) :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 11:15am

"And when you consider which teams have been repeat 1 seeds since 2004- your list really is relegated to just the colts and pats- and all know what those teams have in common"

No competition in their division?

12
by theslothook :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 1:54pm

thats not really true. Sure, none of those teams routinely competed against the baltimore ravens of the world, but the afc south still had the jaguars and titans who were repeat wildcard teams. The patriots had less competition until the jets who are more recent.

15
by Paddy Pat :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 8:15pm

The Dolphins were very competitive from 2001-03; in 03 they won 10 games, though they failed to make the playoffs. The Bills were the highest team in weighted DVOA in 2004 but didn't make the playoffs. The Jets were a playoff team in 2006 and 2004, and the Jets and Dolphins were both good in 2008. The division has looked less competitive than it was because the Patriots have simply mauled everyone.

17
by theslothook :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 9:45pm

I was just mentioning teams that were repeat wildcard teams. In the afc east, that leaves just the jets.

18
by Paddy Pat :: Sun, 08/26/2012 - 12:32am

Appreciated. I sometimes have the sense that it's hard to judge competitiveness based on win totals though. For example, the Pats last year had the knock on them going into the postseason that Denver was the only playoff team they had beaten in the regular season. Well, true enough, but they basically downed the Jets' season. NYJ would probably have won the division and had a very different story to their season if they had beaten the Patriots even in just the second meet-up.

19
by theslothook :: Sun, 08/26/2012 - 5:38am

It wasn't just that. The others were the cowboys who were pretty good, the chargers who had they not botched that handoff, would've been 9-7, then there was the eagles(though they were starting vince young). So overall, it wasn't exactly a walkover schedule.

Im also in the minority, but, the pats defense talent wise was horrible, but they didn't play horrible. I thought their red zone defense and turnovers made them just plain bad, not abysmal. Overall, they were a strong team and its amazing what one welker drop/bad pass(depending on your perspective) would've changed the entire perception of the pats, brady, and bellichick.

11
by Vicious Chicken of Bristol (not verified) :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 11:24am

"I just have a hard time seeing the Steelers really dominate. They haven't had a dominating season since 2004. They've won Super Bowls in that span, but they were never even the top seed."

Who cares about getting top seed? It certainly has no correlation to winning the Superbowl.

13
by Jerry :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 2:23pm

This is a team that had a "disappointing" season last year where they only went 12-4.

14
by drobviousso :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 5:32pm

"the last few games in 2011 seemed to demonstrate that Roethlisberger loses quite a bit when he can't improvise"

Improvise? he couldn't even step forward to take a throw.

16
by Paddy Pat :: Sat, 08/25/2012 - 8:17pm

I was channeling FOA 2012, the write-up on Big Ben. The comparison with the other 3 quarterbacks who took roughly comparable numbers of sacks to this point in their career (Cunningham, Lomax, and Ken O'Brien) does not bode well for Roethlisberger.

20
by BywaterBrat :: Sun, 08/26/2012 - 6:59pm

Yea, but he took those hits in the 21st century- I think medical stats as much as any others have to be taken with a grain of salt when comparing even the most recent eras.