In 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs with a record of 8-8. With expectations always high in the Steel City, fans are hoping the Steelers can return to the postseason. Sean Meyers is joined by Dan Scifo, who covers the Steelers for the Latrobe Bulletin, to preview the 2013 campaign.
SM: The Steelers have lost several key players on offense from the team that played in Super Bowl XLV. The wide receivers, running backs and offensively line have almost entirely changed since the 2010 season. Although Pittsburgh has enjoyed stability at quarterback for nearly a decade with Ben Roethlisberger still playing at a high level, many question marks remain. Dan, what do you envision will be the identity of the Steelers’ offense for the 2013 campaign?
DS: The Steelers have made it clear they want to return to their roots of running the ball. Team President Art Rooney II said as much at the end of last season. The Steelers went as far as to alter their blocking scheme along the offensive line, moving from a traditional power set to the new outside zone blocking scheme. The new scheme, made popular in the 1990s by the Denver Broncos, allows linemen to block and use double teams in an area of the field rather than a predetermined hole opened in the traditional scheme.
The team also drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft to help boost last year’s 26th-ranked rushing attack. Bell was on the fast track to the starting job before a mid-foot sprain sidelined the former Michigan State product for several weeks.
Despite the changes, I don’t see the Steelers centering their offense around the run game. Not in today’s pass-happy National Football League and not with Ben Roethlisberger under center. When he is on top of his game, he’s one of the best at his position. If the Steelers want to succeed offensively, it’s going to come off the arm of Roethlisberger. The Steelers started the 2012 season with a 6-3 record and Roethlisberger played some of the best football of his career during that time. He wasn’t the same after he left the Kansas City game with a right shoulder injury and dislocated rib, and it showed as the Steelers lost five of their last seven games and missed the playoffs.
SM: I agree that the Steelers’ offense will certainly put more points on the board this season by heavily favoring the passing game. That approach has its drawbacks, though, as Ben has been one of the most-sacked quarterbacks over the past several years. Furthermore, Roethlisberger will be without some of his favorite targets from previous years, as speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace left for Miami via free agency, and tight end Heath Miller is still recovering from injury. Given these factors, how can the Steelers maximize their passing attack?
DS: Second-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley loves short passes, slants, and bubble screens. He sees them as an extension of the run game. Roethlisberger loves to throw the ball deep. He also has an uncanny ability to ad-lib and extend plays in the pocket unlike any other quarterback in the game. The Steelers want to reduce the wear and tear on their 31-year-old quarterback and keep Roethlisberger upright, limiting the number of big hits that can come from extending plays in the pocket.
I see the Steelers’ offense as a mix of Haley’s short passes, bubble screens, and slants and, maybe not the deep passes we saw when Mike Wallace was here, but deeper routes — maybe deep posts to stretch the field and allow game-changers like Antonio Brown to make plays and run in open space. They will try to run the ball, and there will be a concerted effort on the run. But Ben Roethlisberger runs this offense, and if he’s going to co-exist with Haley, it’s going to be a mix of the offensive coordinator’s short passes and Roethlisberger’s preferred deeper routes.
I would personally like to see Roethlisberger run more no-huddle. It seems like any time he’s in the no-huddle and calling his own plays, he’s more comfortable and the offense generally runs smooth. I’m not saying call the no huddle exclusively, but it usually serves as a nice way to jump-start the offense when it is sputtering. Bruce Arians gave Roethlisberger the freedom to run a lot of no huddle and Roethlisberger enjoyed that freedom of calling his own plays. Roethlisberger is a student of the game and he loves studying quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who use a lot of no huddle. No need to limit Roethlisberger. Allow him to call his own plays if the offense is struggling. It might be the boost the Steelers need.
SM: Shifting to the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers boasted the top unit statistically in 2012. Many areas of the defense could be problematic in 2013, however, as former Pro Bowlers James Harrison and Casey Hampton are gone, and the three stars of the secondary are on the wrong side of 30-years-old.
To address the loss of Harrison, the Steelers drafted Jarvis Jones, an elite pass rusher in college, with the 17th-overall pick. Several other younger or less-experienced players such as Steve McLendon and Cortez Allen will be expected to contribute. Will Dick LeBeau’s defense remain among the leagues’ elite, or will it falter in 2013?
DS: That appears to be the age-old question every season. Is this the year the Steelers’ defense is going to fall apart? Some of the year it looked like that would be the case, but four of the past six seasons the Steelers finished No. 1 in the league. The past two years alone, the Steelers were tops in the league, and No. 2 overall in 2010 when they went to the Super Bowl, so the potential is still there regardless of age.
I think the Steelers’ defense very much has the opportunity to remain among the league’s elite. But much like the offense, this defense needs to remain healthy. There isn’t really much quality depth or experience on both sides of the ball. To be honest, if the Steelers can stay healthy on offense and defense this could turn into a very nice year. If that’s not the case, and the Steelers face injury issues, it could get ugly in a hurry.
The key is strong safety Troy Polamalu, who is crucial to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s exotic fire zone blitzing schemes. He must remain healthy after starting just seven games last season and 42 of the last 64 the previous four seasons, just 65 percent. He is owed $10.8 million next season, so if it’s not a big year from Polamalu, it could be his last for the cap-strapped Steelers.
Polamalu claims to be 100 percent, having worked with a physical therapist in the off-season to zero in on calf and Achilles injuries that have plagued him the previous two seasons. He looked the part during training camp and the preseason, seemingly scouring his way around the ball on every pass play. Polamalu even displayed the impeccable timing he is known for after correctly guessing the snap count in a pre-season game against Kansas City and darting through the line to disrupt a run play. The Steelers’ defense is going to need Polamalu’s big-play ability if they want to remain on top.
SM: For generations in Pittsburgh, linebackers have been crucial to the success of the Steelers. Once again that appears to be the case headed into the 2013 season. The Steelers may have had one of the steals of the draft when they selected Jarvis Jones, who recorded 14.5 sacks last season at Georgia.
DS: Jones looks to be the perfect pass-rushing compliment to fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The rookie has already displayed a nose for the football, recovering a fumble in his first preseason game, ripping the ball from teammates in practice, and even contorting his body to pick off two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger. Fourth-year pro Jason Worilds appears to be the starter, but it won’t be long before Jones is opposite Woodley on the outside.
Woodley also needs to return to form this year after struggling with a hamstring injury and troublesome high ankle sprain for the better part of two seasons. Woodley enjoyed the most productive stretch of his career during the first half of 2011, exploding for nine sacks in eight games, including six in the final three contests. He hasn’t been the same since leaving a game in 2011 against New England with a high ankle sprain, however, and even teammates questioned his motivation at the end of last season.
Inside linebacker Larry Foote enjoyed a career season at age 32 with 113 tackles. He will need to duplicate that production in his 12th NFL season alongside 2007 first-round pick Lawrence Timmons, who led the team with 134 tackles last year.
SM: I believe Ziggy Hood will be a player to watch in 2013. Hood, a former first-round pick, is entering his fifth season. Last season, Hood recorded a career-high 42 tackles, and added three sacks. Defensive ends typically don’t produce prolific statistics in the 3-4 defense, as their primary job is to take on blockers to free up the linebackers to make plays. Hood could be the anchor of the Steelers defensive line this year, though, as Brett Keisel’s career could be winding down and other players have yet to establish themselves. Who else could be key for this defense?
DS: Ike Taylor has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league the past several seasons, matching up against the opposition’s top receiver on a weekly basis. He looks to return to Pro Bowl-caliber form after sitting out the last month of the season with a broken ankle, the first time in 135 games Taylor missed significant time. The Steelers No. 2 cornerback Keenan Lewis left in free agency to New Orleans, but Cortez Allen, a former fourth-round pick, and the team’s top reserve cornerback last year, is expected to fill in. Allen made three starts last season and made an immediate impact causing five turnovers — two interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Free safety Ryan Clark, at age 33, enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career as a stabilizing presence on the back end of the Steelers’ defense. Clark’s stability allows Polamalu to roam throughout the secondary, giving the All-Pro strong safety the freedom to blitz and freelance based on what he sees from opposing offenses. Clark, who had a career-best 102 tackles, missed just five games the past five seasons, partly because of a sickle cell trait that flares up when he plays in Denver.
Steve McLendon is the real deal and ready to take over for 12-year starter Casey Hampton. Unlike Hampton, McLendon is a three-down lineman, who strives to be as powerful as Hampton, smart like former Steelers’ nosetackle Chris Hoke, and quick like Dallas Cowboy’s nosetackle Jay Ratliff.
Brett Keisel, a 12-year veteran, is back at defensive end for what could be his final season as a Steeler. Cameron Heyward, another former first-round pick, and Al Woods provide depth along the defensive front.
SM: The Steelers brought in Danny Smith to serve as the special teams coach for 2013. Thus far, it appears as though Smith has his work cut out for him, as Pittsburgh’s coverage units looked awful throughout the preseason. To complicate matters, after a competition between punters Drew Butler and Brian Moorman, the Steelers decided to go in a different direction altogether and brought in Zoltan Mesko last weekend. Kicker Shaun Suisham has proven to be incredible accurate since he’s joined the Steelers, but what can the Steelers expect from the rest of this unit?
DS: Danny Smith is off to a rough start in Pittsburgh after a horrific preseason. The Steelers’ special teams, under Smith, have had a field goal and a punt blocked, and a kickoff returned for a touchdown in the pre-season… certainly not the start he was looking for after coming to the team with so much fanfare. The Steelers’ special teams have been a revolving door after the Steelers fired Bob Ligashesky, Al Everest was fired at the end of training camp last year and Amos Jones left.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was so high on Smith he wanted to bring him to the Steelers three years ago as special teams coordinator, but Washington denied permission to talk to him. Smith’s special teams units ranked first in the NFC in kickoff return yards in consecutive seasons and second in opponents average starting position on kickoffs. The Redskins were also second in NFL in punt coverage in 2010. Smith needs to turn things around fast if he wants to improve a Steelers’ special teams unit that finished 21st last year.
Zoltan Mesko is a nice pickup, but I’m not sure if he’ll be a significant upgrade. He has a strong leg and is used to punting in bad weather, but his gross and net averages of 44.2 and 39.5 are near Butler’s career marks. The Steelers brought in Brian Moorman to compete with last year’s punter Drew Butler in the preseason, and Butler beat out the two-time Pro Bowler. The Steelers, who have gone through five punters since 2008, weren’t satisfied and quickly jumped to sign Mesko after the Patriots cut the former fifth rounder, instead keeping undrafted rookie Ryan Allen.
Suisham enjoyed a huge year in 2012, hitting on 90 percent of his field goals. He missed just three kicks, two of them coming beyond 50 yards. It’s a stark contrast to Suisham’s 2011 when the nine-year veteran hit just 74 percent of his kicks, missing five times from 40-to-49 and twice from 30-to-39. The Steelers are going to need a year like last season or Suisham’s first year with the team where he hit a career-best 93 percent of his kicks, especially if the offense sputters near the red zone.
SM: A panel of contributors for Tap-ins unanimously predicted the Steelers to finish third in the division, and miss the playoffs.
Upon closer examination of their schedule, the Steelers play six games against teams that should definitely be favorites to make the postseason: two each against division rivals Cincinnati and Baltimore, and road games against New England and Green Bay. Conversely, Pittsburgh will also have six contests against teams not expected by many to make the playoffs: two against Cleveland, as well as home tilts against Tennessee and Buffalo, and road games against the New York Jets and Oakland. If the Steelers split these dozen contests, they could have four “toss up” games against Chicago, Detroit and Miami at home, and on the road at Minnesota. Its reasonable to think the Steelers can win three or all four of those games, but I ultimately see this team finishing at 8-8.
How do you see this season playing out for the black and gold, given the schedule and competition throughout the division?
DS: I could see this team making the playoffs or even winning the AFC North, but an awful lot has to work in the Steelers’ favor. Injuries are at the top of the list because the Steelers don’t have much quality depth or experience behind their starters. If they can avoid significant injuries, particularly to stars like Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, among others, it could be a possibility. They also need to stay healthy at running back, offensive line, wide receiver, linebacker, and at safety particularly. It’s a lot to ask for, especially for a team that has struggled with injuries, but the starting 22 are capable of leading this team to the playoffs.
Third place is probably pretty accurate for this team, though I don’t think Baltimore is that much better than the Steelers. The Steelers probably should’ve defeated Baltimore in Pittsburgh and maybe got away with one in Baltimore when Charlie Batch stole a seemingly improbable victory. Give Baltimore the edge because the Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions, but not by much because they dealt with a lot of turnover in the off-season. Cincinnati appears to be the front-runner, but the Bengals are going to have to prove they are for real. A key early-season test will be Week 2 in Cincinnati.
The real question is, if the Steelers aren’t the best team in the AFC North, where do they rank in the AFC? It’s hard to judge the hierarchy of the AFC, but it’s a very real possibility the Steelers could be battling for two wild card spots in December. If injury takes its toll, the results could be similar or worse to last year’s disappointing 8-8 campaign.