2013 A Dud, But Emerging Youngsters A Reason For Optimism Next Year

By Jeremy Hritz

The Steelers suffered another defensive collapse yesterday against the Dolphins, but in the end, once again, they were in a position to pull out a close win. However, in what seemed to be a repeat from other losses this year, the Steelers could not squeeze out the win late.

While this isn’t the time to make excuses for the Steelers, yesterday was yet another example from this season of being so close but still empty handed.

The loss against the Dolphins yesterday in the snowstorm was the third time this season that a game was decided by six points or less, primarily the result of the defense continuing to surrender the big play. Upon examining the losses for the entire season, five of the Steelers eight losses have been decided by seven points or less, while in fails against the Bengals, Bears, and Patriots, the difference was 17 points.

Close, But No Cigar – A Look at the Point Differences in the Steelers’ Losses

DateSteelers ScoreOpponent’s ScoreDifference
9/8/20139Titans – 167
9/16/201310Bengals – 2010
9/22/201323Bears – 4017
9/29/201327Vikings – 347
10/27/201318Raiders – 213
11/3/201331Patriots – 5524
11/28/201320Ravens – 222
12/8/201328Dolphins – 346
20.75 PPG30.25 PPG9.5 Winning Margin

Surely, there is much to be pessimistic about surrounding this Steelers team, mainly that they will miss the playoffs for the second season in a row. However, despite all of the rumblings that the Steelers are headed toward another period of loathsome play similar to the 1980s, I strongly disagree. There are many holes on this Steelers team, especially in the secondary, but many players have shown themselves to be up-and-comers, and the potential that they have flashed is reason for optimism.

Heading into this season, there was a lot of conjecture that the Steelers would be in transition, and it became evident after the first four weeks of the season that this was indeed a reality. Like it or not, the age of several Steelers figureheads—Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, and Ike Taylor—has weakened their play, and they have been exploited many times this season, in many crucial situations, that have resulted in losses. This isn’t to pinpoint the blame completely on these vets, but it is hard to ignore the countless big plays that have come as a result of the performance, or lack thereof, of Polamalu, Clark, Keisel, and Taylor.

On top of the diminishing effectiveness of these players, and with the added element of newness with Steve McLendon at nose, Vince Williams at inside backer, and Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker, missed assignments, missed tackles, and huge runs and passes have become the norm. Promisingly though, there have been flashes from these players that you have to believe can be built upon moving forward into 2014.

On the bright side, the Steelers are finally seeing a return on their investments in Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds, players whose development was slow, and with the growth that they have shown this season, it’s not unrealistic to see them continuing to flourish next season. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Worilds’ free agent status and LaMarr Woodley’s contract may prevent retaining the former Hokie. The Steelers would serve themselves well to make note of the drop-off at the corner position that they suffered when they let Keenan Lewis depart for New Orleans, and they have to stop developing their own talent only to let it walk away and benefit other organizations. The bottom line is that taking into consideration Woodley’s injury history over the last three years and his age, they have to find a way to get it done with Worilds.

Offensively, I believe Todd Haley will not return to the Steelers next season, despite some of the positives that have come out of his unit this year, and that should improve what has the potential to be a solid offense.

The Steelers have battled against another year of countless injuries on the offensive line, but have found a way to make it work. As a result of all of the injuries, several linemen that would have never have gotten playing time, have earned experience and have shown the organization what their role can be moving forward. The development of Kelvin Beachum, and even Mike Adams yesterday against the Dolphins, provides some hope for next season on the offensive line, if only as back-ups for depth purposes.

And what can you say about Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers? This season has been the first in a long time that Roethlisberger has stayed healthy, and in my opinion, he has never looked sharper or savvier considering the circumstances. While many would argue that he hasn’t commanded enough fourth quarter comebacks to keep the team relevant, the protection issues that he faced earlier in the year, combined with the early lack of a running game, plus several drops and a defense that can’t keep the other team off of the scoreboard, Roethlisberger has kept this team competitive, and had he not been in place as the starter, this team could easily be winless.

Antonio Brown has put together a monster season, and so has Jerricho Cotchery considering his limited role. Emmanuel Sanders has been inconsistent and has had a case of the dropsies all year, but he won’t be around to hurt this team next season. Heath Miller, after a slow start in returning from his injury, is getting closer to his old form and is playing well. Ultimately, the Steelers are one sure-handed receiver away from having an elite group of pass catchers, and hopefully Markus Wheaton can make that jump for next season.

More than anything, the greatest reason for optimism regarding the Steelers offense is Le’Veon Bell, and though he has yet to put up a 100-yard game, he always pushes the pile forward and is a threat as a receiver. His productivity will only continue to increase, and it is that production from the running game that can kick the Steelers offense into overdrive. And it has been said before, but the more productive the running game can be, the better Roethlisberger and the passing attack can execute. And you have to wonder about how the outcome of the game would have been altered yesterday had Bell carried the ball more than five times in the second half. A definite misuse that does not help Haley’s case to remain with the Steelers.

The bottom line is that the Steelers have been competitive this season despite playing with several holes, having to overcome injury after injury, and the deteriorating performance of aging starters. The inconsistencies this year have been the result of those factors coupled with the inexperience of several young players, which should pay dividends next season.

It may be difficult to see the silver lining right now with this Steelers team, but transitions are a normal part of the NFL game. The Steelers have taken their lumps this season, and may take a few more before everything is said and done come the final game against the Browns, but while 2013 seems to be a never-ending bad dream, there is hope in considering what younger players like Brown, Bell, David DeCastro, Heyward, and Worilds, if he is re-signed, can do with another year of experience and with the health of their teammates.

Let’s hope they can finish the season with enough momentum to carry into a winning 2014.