State of the Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that there are 12 defensive starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
- Jury’s still out
- Just a guy
- Upgrade needed
- No longer on the team
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
After having tremendous success with more of a big pass-oriented offense the past five years, the Steelers are concertedly aiming to return to their more traditional black-and-blue approach. Last offseason, they brought in Todd Haley and his multi-tight end, controlled passing game. This offseason, they’ve chosen to not pay speedsters Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall. They’ve also prioritized youth along the offensive line. It’s a questionable approach given Ben Roethlisberger’s unparalleled skill set and the recent success of his wide receivers. But I’ll refrain from official criticism for now, as I’ve learned over the years that this franchise doesn’t make many mistakes when crafting long-term plans.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski; Lost: Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich
RB: Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Baron Batch, David Johnson (FB), Will Johnson (FB)
Roethlisberger’s play-making prowess in sandlot situations is unmatched in both its uniqueness and effectiveness. Lately, the 31-year-old has also shown new-found refinement as a pocket passer and field reader. He must rely on that maturation process in order to rebound from last season’s disastrous December, where he battled injuries and threw loss-sealing interceptions at the end of the Cowboys and Bengals games. Dwyer and Redman are both capable mudders who have just light enough feet to survive. They badly need a quicker scatback to complement them, though. Right now the hope –- and it’s just hope -– is that Batch can suffice.
WR: Antonio Brown (Or is it Antonio Brown? See below), Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress; Lost: Mike Wallace
TE: Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, David Paulson; Lost: Leonard Pope
Brown gets in and out of his breaks quicker than anyone in the NFL. He might be the league’s toughest all-around cover, especially at the intermediate levels. Sanders is similar in style to Brown: he’s a favorite of Roethlisberger’s when working inside from trips formations. Can he be a favorite as an every-down player? Cotchery no longer runs well, but still knows how to operate from the slot. Burress no longer runs well, but still knows how to be 6-foot-5. Miller is a smooth seam and underneath receiver who also contributes meaningfully as a blocker. Paulson was a seventh-round pick in 2012; his receiving abilities really intrigue the staff, but his future likely hinges on the development of his in-line blocking -- a skill Haley's system demands and one that Paulson did not work on much playing for Chip Kelly at Oregon.
LT: Mike Adams LG: Ramon Foster C: Maurkice Pouncey RG: David DeCastro RT: Marcus Gilbert
Backups: John Malecki, Kevin Beachum; Lost: Willie Colon, Max Starks, Doug Legursky
Adams improved gradually playing the right side as a rookie. He was clearly a better run blocker than a pass blocker. That will have to change now that he’s at left tackle. Foster is best suited to be a utility backup. Pouncey has evolved into the league’s best center: his athleticism is unmatched and he’s smart and fundamentally sound. DeCastro and Gilbert are both recent high-round picks who must prove they can stay healthy.
The Steelers ranked first in yards allowed last season and sixth in points. However, they ranked 26th in turnovers and tied for 15th in total sacks. The dearth of big plays helped them finish with a DVOA of -2.9% (13th in the league) and, more importantly, a disappointing record of 8-8. This aging unit has not been declining in recent years as much as people think, but 2013 could prove to be a turning point. James Harrison and Casey Hampton are both gone and haven’t been meaningfully replaced. 32-year-old Troy Polamalu is coming off his second injury-riddled season in four years. Dick LeBeau is back, though, as is most of his staff. It’s one of the best staffs in football, as evidenced by the sound mechanics and chemistry that define so many of these players, as well as the well-orchestrated sub-package wrinkles the Steelers roll out each week.
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DE: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, Al Woods
DT: Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta’amu, Lost: Casey Hampton
If Ta’amu, last year’s fourth-round pick who was waived at midseason after being arrested for drunken driving, can redeem himself on the field by shouldering some of the nose tackle load, McLendon will prove sufficient for replacing Hampton as the starter. Style-wise, the 27-year-old undrafted veteran will have to rely more on penetration and less on sheer clogging. Keisel might be the best "role player" in the entire league. He takes on blocks and sets up stunts extremely well. It's a shame former first-rounders Hood and Heyward haven’t seemed to have learned from him. Hood plays too tall against the run; Heyward has not shown enough to catapult himself to the first string.
OLB: Lamarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, Chris Carter, Adrian Robinson; Lost: James Harrison
ILB: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Sean Spence
Woodley has the talent to dominate, but injuries and denigrating whispers about his conditioning pose legitimate question marks. He’s missed nine games over the past two years and has just 13 sacks in that time. Worilds is capable of starting, but he won't fill Harrison’s shoes. Timmons is the most athletic inside linebacker in the game. The Steelers do a great job diversifying his assignments in nickel and dime situations. Foote is sensational at diagnosing plays and taking on blocks.
CB: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Curtis Brown; Lost: Keenan Lewis
S: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark; Lost: Ryan Mundy, Will Allen
Polamalu played like himself when he was on the field last season, he just needs to be on the field more often. Clark is a borderline star with a football IQ that’s off the charts. Taylor is one of the best-kept secrets in all of sports: week in and week out, the lanky veteran matches up to No. 1 receivers and thoroughly wins the battle. He’s not quite a "shutdown corner," because at times he benefits from great safety help or buzzing linebackers, but that’s just part of the luxury of playing in a system designed for pressuring the passer without sacrificing bodies in coverage. Allen is ready to start, but the addition of Gay and subtraction of Lewis means this secondary as a whole has taken a slight step back.
K: Shaun Suisham P: Drew Butler
Nothing worth saying here.
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AND NOW, A MESSAGE FROM THE EDITOR
During this whole series, I've occasionally responded to Andy with my thoughts when I feel that a player's color should be changed, generally based either on stats or on changing a young player to yellow ("jury's still out"). For example, I don't think it would surprise readers that Andy and I disagreed about Joe Flacco being blue. However, I think the player we disagreed most about in the entire AFC was Antonio Brown. We had a long back and forth about it, which showed a lot of interesting thoughts about a scout-first mentality compared to a stats-first mentality. So if you are curious about Brown's listing above, read this first. -- Aaron Schatz
Aaron Schatz: I disagree with Brown being blue. He's pretty good, but I don't think he's hit "star" status. I would make him green.
Andy Benoit: He's absolutely blue! You're crazy!
Aaron Schatz: About Brown being blue... He's talented, but I don't think he's a dramatic game changer. He's very good. His stats certainly don't equal "star" status, and unlike, say, Larry Fitzgerald, he can't exactly complain that he has a crappy quarterback who hurts his numbers. He was a little above average in DVOA in 2011, then average last year. Last year he was 36th in total yards and 55th in yards per pass (min. 50 targets), and he had just four touchdowns.
I realize he's a little better than his numbers, but I don't think there's a reason to say he's DRAMATICALLY better than his numbers (unlike, again, Larry Fitzgerald).
In the RSP Writer's Project draft -- which is a lot of scouting guys, not numbers guys for the most part -- he was the 21st WR taken, and partly that was because of age, as there were older guys taken after him who are prob better right now (Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith, Greg Jennings, a couple of examples).
Andy Benoit: Brown is the quickest route runner in the NFL. Maybe the league's toughest pure cover assignment from a fundamentals standpoint. Obviously the numbers disagree, we can acknowledge that. But to me he's clearly a "star".
Aaron Schatz: I guess part of the question here is where the line for blue is. How many wide receivers would you consider "blue" in the league? I'm curious to see your list of WRs who are better than Brown, to see who you would put on there.
And I have to wonder: if he truly is the quickest route runner in the NFL, and the toughest pure cover assignment, what would be the explanation for why his numbers aren't better? Like I said, it's hard to blame the QB. (His numbers go up if you take out the Batch games, but not by much.) It's not like he's the only good receiver there and can be easily doubled, although I can see that as part of an explanation for why his numbers dropped between 2011 and 2012, since Wallace decided to be a dickhead.
Andy Benoit: Yeah, I'm wondering about Brown's numbers, too. I thought about the Batch games, that's not a driving factor, though. Honestly, I don't know. But I'll drum up a list of superior wideouts.
CLEARLY BETTER THAN BROWN RIGHT NOW: A.J. Green, Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Steve Smith, Vincent Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald
HEALTHY DEBATE ON IF HE’S BETTER THAN BROWN RIGHT NOW: Mike Wallace, Santonio Holmes, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, DeSean Jackson, Jordy Nelson, Percy Harvin
Aaron Schatz: I would put everyone on that second list ahead of Antonio Brown except for Jackson and Holmes. I also think the top possession receivers would fit better as "blue" even if a team would rather have Brown for his talents and age... Guys like Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and Marques Colston. I also think Dwayne Bowe and Sidney Rice are in the discussion.
So anyway, by that thought, that's like 20 or 21 out of the 64 starting wide receivers. I just think that puts Brown under the line between blue and green. Give him another year or two, and maybe that changes. And as far as the colors representing fit in roles... this is a guy who hasn't yet been asked to be the No. 1 receiver on his team, who now has to take on that responsibility. Is he "blue" as a No. 1 target?
The other thing I would say is that just like knowing a guy's skill set and what he's asked to do in the offense can show he's better than the stats may indicate -- your Flacco argument -- a guy with surprisingly low stats may be showing that he's not translating his skills to the field as well as he should be. That's why I think it means something that it's hard to find specific reasons why Brown comes out as just slightly above-average rather than really good like top guys like Green, Marshall, Jones, or Fitzgerald (in years he has an actual quarterback).
Andy Benoit: I'm appalled that Colston, Bowe, Decker and Rice are even mentioned in this discussion! If a team would rather have a guy like Brown than a top possession guy, doesn't that tell you something? It's about value. What can you do with a player? What threats does he pose?
Aaron Schatz: Well, you did say the colors were based on "players classified by color based on how they fit their role," rather than just potential. I mean, if he poses so many threats, why hasn't it resulted in more offensive success for the Steelers. (Yes, "their offensive line sucks" is part of the answer.)
Also, if the guy's skills are so apparent, how the hell did he last until the sixth round just three years ago?
Andy Benoit: You make good arguments. The numbers aren't there. In fact, they're really not there. Less than 2,000 yards over last two years. I'm surprised by that. All I can go with is what I see on film, though. Not saying that as a "because I say so" argument, saying that as a "when I see Brown on film, healthy, it never occurs to me that he could be classified as anything less than a star. Never even occurs to me." Now, maybe that says more about me than about Brown. It might. And perhaps as a No. 2 Brown is a star, but as a No. 1 he's only "pretty good". If I had ever ridden the fence about Brown, I'd go with that, I'd rate him green. But I've been so thoroughly impressed with him the past two years (2011 especially) that I feel like I'd be wasting my time watching film if I ignored my instincts on him. Toughest route runner to cover that I've seen, dynamic after the catch, versatile (also in the return game), can't bring myself to overlook it. The Steelers chose to pay him instead of Mike Wallace for a reason.