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.

  • cp72

    I could not agree more. We have some young talent to be excited about. We need another good draft or two, but we have a core developing.

    Early 1st round draft thoughts CJ Mosley, Sammy Watkins, Travis Benjamin, Jake Matthews.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Yes, there is good reason to be optimistic going forward, as the Steelers have finally found some replacements for the departed or soon to be departing vets. I just want them to become more proactive in the future. Let’s not wait for injuries to force you to play the youngsters. Give them a shot now.

    Get rid of more vets, no matter how painful the cap hit. At least then you can look forward to a day when you have a few extra bucks to pick up some free agents that happen to come cheap. I agree with the Steelers in one regard: The teams that make the biggest splash by signing the high priced free agents never win the Super Bowl and sometimes have trouble even competing. But once they have spent tons of money there remain some players out there that can help immediately and can be signed for a reasonable amount of money. I look forward to the day that the Steelers will have some extra money. It’s too bad it seems so far off

    Meanwhile, there are definitely signs of hope out there. This terrible O line has seemed to play better as Ben has been getting rid of the ball quicker recently. I have always maintained that it is the key going forward not only for success, but also it offers the potential for keeping the line intact, with less injuries. There are teams out there where the 5 linemen have started every game in the past year or 2. Imagine how that would help.

    I would like to see Arnfelt play. And we definitely need a big-bodied receiver that can help. Can Moye or Brown be that type for the Steelers? I don;t know yet, but they sure need one. Thank God for these young guys, as some are doing well.

  • 20Stoney

    Bless your optimism. I can actually see them being worse next year. Worilds gone the next time Woodley is hurt. Breaking in multiple new people in the secondary. Who is playing opposite Heyward? In the past they’ve always had depth pushing for playing time. I don’t see that now.

  • steeltown

    Indeed..need another good draft class, hopefully consisting of a top tier CB another OT and hopefully a young stud TE

  • steeltown

    I think we’ll see an early Rd DB and mid-late Rd DB being selected and we still have WillieG, Cortez Allen and Shamarko even if Clark and Taylor are gone. Plus they should in all likelihood resign Will Allen for a modest price. Also, I think Keisel is brought back on a one year deal, so between him, Al Woods and Arnfelt (opposite Heyward) I think the DL will be fine.

    The loss of Worilds will be felt next year, losing him will be huge and Defense will suffer for lack of OLB depth, no doubt. I cant understand why we don’t have even one OLB on the PS, no one being groomed for depth

  • steeltown

    There is reason for optimism , no doubt, young guys like Heyward, Bell, DeCastro, V.Williams, Shamarko etc to go along with our soon to be veteran guys like A.Brown, C.Allen, McLendon and Timmons we have some talent for sure but the decisions that will be made this offseason will go a long way with how optimistic I will be.. we have to draft DB/CBs and we cant miss on the selections. Also, the OLB depth will suffer greatly if Worilds is lost to FA, so there’s another area of concern.

    In the end, we need another good draft

  • 20Stoney

    I just see a team with a lot of holes to fill, cap issues and nobody with the exception of Worilds actually pushing for playing time. If they can somehow manage to resign him I’ll feel a little better but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

  • steeltown

    No doubt a lot of holes, especially if Worilds is lost to FA and Taylor and Clark are released. But we have C.Allen and Shamarko to hopefully replace two of the aforementioned players, the problem is we then lack depth. We need another strong draft,we haven’t hit on a CB since Lewis and C.Allen, we certainly need to again

  • James Kling

    Maybe I’m feeling a tad chippy this season, but I’m feeling pretty foul over how some of the vets have seemingly declined rapidly. That means Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor, and I would allow Clark, Keisel (age, injuries), and Hood to seek employment elsewhere. Cutting Ike would entail almost $5M in dead money, so I’d let him play out his contract but look for a top CB early to be the future. Polamalu has been inconsistent, at times brilliant, other times guessing badly and flailing tackles. He’s in a contract year, so no action needed.

    The big question is, do we let Worilds walk and retain Woodley? Worilds is 25 and showing some good stuff, Woodley is 29 and always seems to be dinged up or out of shape. And Woodley counts for $38M+ against the cap the next 3 years. I’d seriously pursue trading him, maybe BA would like to have him, maybe some 3-4 team weak at OLB wouldn’t mind over-paying. I know Jarvis hasn’t shown much, but it’s his rookie season and I’d rather go cheaper and younger. (No doubt the FO will not pursue this, and even if they did they’d only get a bag of magic beans rather than a high draft pick due to the cap.)

    That leaves a couple of spots needing help via the draft or FA, besides CB. First, with Hood allowed to leave and Keisel not retained, I’d move Mac to DE and find a plugger for the middle. Woods and Arnfelt can provide depth, maybe keep Fangs as well. Second, Shark can take over for Clark but I’d still look for S value for the push for youth.
    Blow it up. Go young. If guys like Keisel and Clark want to stay here, vet minimum, backups.

  • DB84

    I love how I haven’t heard anyone mention how they should have drafted Sean Lee lately. I guess Tomlin wasn’t so wrong to want to pick Worilds. But lets fire Tomlin for his draft input anyways……..

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Great points. I watch the GIF’s several times over and the games, and I always looked for what others are doing. Pay attention to Al Woods, as he has been making some big time plays that go unnoticed. If Fangupo can get in there and show some promise (speculation on my part), then that would be one area that need not be addressed, as McClendon, Woods, Fangupo would share in NT responsibilities. I also like Mac and Woods to play some DE at times to see what they’ve got.

    I think they let go at least a few guys, like Sanders, Clark, Keisel, and several others. Now if the young guys perform decently, along with a decent draft, and a healthy O line, then we are going in the right direction. Hell, I would take another losing season even if it meant last place. Seriously, because then at least I would have some hope that the Steelers could go from worst to first the next year.

    If they keep doing what they’ve been doing, by mortgaging the future, then expect years of mediocrity.

  • ATL96STEELER

    They definitely mortgaged the future…and now is the future really…losing Lewis, Wallace and probably Worilds is the fallout.

    Keisel, Foote, and Clark are gone. The back 4 is slow, no other way to say it. Thomas will be ready to take one S spot…the tipping point is do they part with Ike and Troy, bring both back, or just one back.

    They felt Fangupo was closer to being a player than Ta’amu so hopefully you’re right…the OFC has to get bigger @ WR…Wheaton imo is a slot WR at best…or get one of the hybrid TEs from this draft in Amaro or Ebron.

  • Elijah Stevenson

    It’s like what D. Sanders said u never learn when your off the field unless you’re in it.

  • Elijah Stevenson

    There’s no question that Jason is our new James Harrison we’d be fool’s to let him go so we can keep Lamarr. Especially since Jarvis Jones needs veteran leadership to develop.

  • DrakePirate

    Well done post … agreed, the season has been a pooper for sure, but there is promise and i think this team does not have to be destined for rebuilding but can actually compete for a title in a year or two max depending on the front office’s moves

    the way forward IMO is tackle the offense this year and then take care of the defense next year … and be done with it … all fixes can’t be done thru the draft, I think we need to get 2 or 3 solid FA’s what i personally would do would be …

    1st Rd – Draft one of the top TE’s .. would take care of our redzone issues and give Ben another Big Target … the NFL is a 2 TE system nowdays .. u need both to compete

    2nd Rd – Draft one of the top Guards .. maybe the guy from Stanford or whoever else they deem appropriate

    FA- Pick up a Solid LT … dont trust them drafting one after the duds they have picked up … Pay him with the savings they will have with the much needed pay cuts to some of the veterans (ike, troy, etc .. )

    That would take care of the whole Offense and we would have good depth with the best of Foster, Beachem, Adams/Gilbert and Ebernaste/ Velasco

    that would be the best approach i believe and would be a monster Offense …. late in the draft u could pursue a RB/KR specialist … Punter and whatever else …

    The Def could be addressed completely the next year specifically CB’s and Safety with the same methodology … 2 or 3 from the Draft and then pick up a Solid FA …

    Easy Peasy !!!

  • ATL96STEELER

    When you look at why they are what they are this season…poor OL play to start, slow on the back end…I think with some tweaking they can be a playoff team next year.

    To play the role of Colbert…I would go ahead, and bite the bullet on Woodley and, Taylor re-sign Worilds, & Gay…with the 1st pick I get a big OFC playmaker like Amaro, Ebron, or Evans. The OL players have to get more time on the field as a unit.

    Since I’m dreaming I would love to Hageman DE 1st, Allen Robinson, WR 2nd. I do agree it’s going to take some time to fill all the holes with solid talent with some experience under their belt.

  • Addison

    I agree with all of this. It’s what I’ve been trying to express, but in much better words. I failed English class.

  • Alan Felicia

    Sorry, I strongly disagree about McLendon – he is not the long term solution at NT. He’s better suited as an End.
    Plus, I think Haley stays. Unless they bring in another OC who’s familiar with the system (Whisenhunt, Arians, Haley technically runs same system/playbook). Could they bring in, say, Kubiak or Shananhan (if he’s fired in Wash), maybe? That’s if each one will take an OC job…

  • James Kling

    Biting the bullet on Woodley and Taylor would cost us $19,112,401 in 2014. That’s about a sixth of the salary cap. I agree that Worilds is younger, more cost effective, and probably the better long term solution to Woodley, but unless you can trade his salary away the bite is too much. Even Ike’s $5M dead money seems more conducive to letting him play out his deal – perhaps draft a CB and transition Ike to backup.

  • steeltown

    Well stated

  • steeltown

    I think we can assume that Clark and Keisel are done (Keisel back on a 1 yr vet minimum would be welcomed) then also gone are Sanders and Hood via FA, Levi Brown and Foote will most likely be cut, that leaves Ike and Troy who I personally believe will both agree to paycuts

    Where we need help is DB and OLB with the aforementioned Taylor and Polamalu in final yr and of course OLB is a no brainer unless Worilds is somehow retained

  • steeltown

    I bet Shanahan is coaching the Texans next year

  • James Kling

    Agree with most of this. I’m betting they don’t learn their lesson and at least sign back Clark. And Ike and Troy will at least play out their contract years.
    I remember thinking Fangupo was an older prospect, but I thought he fit the 3-4 better than Alameda. Wasted pick. We should at least give him some reps at NT to see what he can do. (And slide Mac to DE opposite Heyward.)

    Too soon to say Wheaton is a slot receiver only though. It’s tough to break in at WR as a rook, and especially since he busted up his paw pretty good. I think he could have more versatility than you’re giving him credit for, and am excited to see if he shows any progress over the lame duck stretch run.

  • James Kling

    Maybe he meant Kyle Shanarat, not Mike?

  • steeltown

    Fang is a beast, VERY strong.. if Mitchell can get him to play with more technique he could be a contributor

  • ATL96STEELER

    $19.1 is a lot…3 or 4 good players actually, not a good situation I agree…but what you do want…a bad DEF that’s young, or a bad DEF that’s old…if we’re going to be bad, at least be young and improving.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I heard a lot of good things about Hageman DE from MINN, but we have youth already and Heyward is coming into his own quickly this yr. Hood is what he is, stable, depth…so MAC to DE should help him and Woods looks like a player.

    Wheaton…calling him a slot sounds like I’m degrading his game and I’m not really…my thought here if he’s the #2 that puts a lot of pressure on Ben in the RZ with only 1 big reliable target. Couple Brown, Miller and Wheaton with one of the young TEs I mentioned and you have a lot more size.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I don’t expect Haley to go anywhere…3 OCs in 4 seasons, nah.

    I do expect Shanahan to get fired, and I agree with Steeltown…he could end up in HOU.

  • James Kling

    For that kind of cap hit, I’d bite the bullet and keep them. Let Ike play out his deal, move on in 2015. Woodley is more complicated. When healthy, he can at least contribute; his dead money is $14.2M in 2014 and $8.6M in 2015. I just think that’s too much dead money. (About $3M in 2016 though.)

    If it were me, I’d look very hard at teams playing the 3-4 who might need an OLB. (Cardinals, reunited with BA? Chargers? Saints?) I’d point out that Woodley is fifth among players under 30 in total sacks (57.0, behind Mario Williams – 75.5, Tamba Hali – 73.5, Elvis Dumervil – 73.0, and Justin Tuck – 58.0), and would push for a R2 pick. If teams balked because he’s missed 12 starts over the past 3 years, I’d counter with the point “Imagine how many sacks he would have had if he’d made all those starts.”

    There would be plenty of teams that would consider paying one of the top OLBs 3 years, $25.5M, and give up a draft pick. We’d bite $14,170,000 in dead money, but the offset would be getting a draft pick and some overall cap relief. I’d push for a R2 pick, but would consider R3. Just cutting him and getting nothing doesn’t fly.

  • James Kling

    I’m intrigued by Hageman. My biggest reservation with really tall NTs (McCullers is another this year) is leverage. Ngata’s 6’4, and he seems like one of the tallest 3-4 NTs I can think of. Hageman might need to bulk, and even then I would have to consider whether IOL guys could get up under him and neutralize him. But yeah, he’s in the mix for sure.

    WRT Wheaton, I guess I just consider him more of a split end, but I agree with adding another big target, one of the TEs or possibly Mike Evans, who’s sort of a hybrid anyway.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Back 4…I hope not, but FO is loyal to a fault…they had a chance to move Ike LY can retain Lewis…but they act as if Taylor was the #1 CB…2 fast CBs and 2 slow safeties has half a chance…1 fast CB and 1 slow CB and 2 slow safeties is not proving to work.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Not that he’s my 1st priority but Hageman I would project as a DE in this scheme imo….another topic entirely but I really think we’re better suited to play a 4-3…move Woodley to DE, J. Jones to OLB…Mac & Hood @ DT…Timmons in the middle, with Williams the other OLB and work on depth.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Woodley…you’re the voice of reason…your post makes way more fiscal sense over just releasing him…by all means if we could parlay a pick out the deal I’m all in.

    FWIW I don’t think Woodley is finished, but just gauging where the team is and he’s definitely on the down tick as a player now. IMO Woodley would be better served as 4-3 DE right now…less coverage responsibility, probably would add 2 more years to his career.

    I forgot the team, but somebody carried like $30 mil in dead money one year basically biting the bullet. My whole point is Woodley part of the future?

  • Alan Felicia

    You mean Colbert not Tomlin. Tomlin’s job is to coach and Colbert is responsible for building a team.

  • RMSteeler

    Youngsters are indeed reason for optimism. If not for injuries, would we know what we actually had? Biggest dissapointment has been and will be coaching lapses and the cap situation. Just like Congress, kicking the can down the road. When will be the day of reckoning?

  • walter mason

    I would try to trade Woodley. He is no longer an impact player but unfortunately, hes already been paid into the future so we cant cut him without dead money. I never liked Haley. I cannot understand ever going to Sanders in a clutch situation. Ughhh.

  • sean mcmartin

    with all the holes to fill on defense. The steelers have gone after a free agent before This is as good as time as any to fill with a free agent., Hoping they have a legendary draft.. and sign Worilds, cut woodley, kiesel,Gilbert, ,Hood Clark, felix jones, and draft a NT or top tier CB early..
    Ike taylor might be able to convert to safety.like rod woodson.he is big enough , keeps his body in shape and does come up to help stuff the run.and knows the defense…need to get through the last three games without any major injuries,
    Rebuild before Ben is done..

  • Patrick Reid

    If Haley leaves I think that Fitchner will be the next OC. He’s familiar with the system, culture and above all 7 is comfortable with him. I really feel that if we don’t get healthy, consistent play from the O line. It doesnt matter who calls the plays. Hopefully Adams can show enough improvement so that we don’t have to burn a 1st rd pick on a LT. If we don’t draft Nix at NT from ND in the first. We definitely should go after Ebron or Jenkins from UW. We can run 2 TE sets becoming more dynamic on O. It would also fill the need for a big receiver. I believe that Ebron or Nix can contribute right away. Move Mac to end and Cam on the other end. Getting a big plug in the middle like Hampton would really help Woodley and Worilds who it is essential that we keep. Enter Louis Nix. Also Brian Arnfelt, Nik Embernate, Spence and Moye/Brown could be huge next year. I agree the future looks bright.

  • Patrick Reid

    Mr. Mason I really wish we had dumped 88 for the 3rd rd pick the PATS offered during the offseason.

  • DB84

    No I Mean Tomlin. I understand and always have understood that Colbert is responsible for most draft picks however, Ed Bouchette and several people on here have reported that it was Tomlin who had the influence to take Worilds instead of Lee. I just find it funny that people always complained about the pick, but now everyone says he is the next Harrison and the Steelers must sign him long term.

  • James Kling

    Oh, I don’t think Woodley’s finished either, just projecting where he’ll be over the next 3 years vs. ROI in the salary cap. I think Woodley WILL be part of the future, but should he be?

  • James Kling

    Interesting. I thought at the beginning of the year that our current F7 personnel favored the 4-3, especially after Foote got hurt and we had no polished ILB in the pipeline alongside Timmons.

  • James Kling

    Seconded.

  • Luke Shabro

    I don’t think Moye or Brown are btter than a 5th WR. Arnfelt though I am really excited to see get some snaps in training camp.

  • Luke Shabro

    A lot of people are saying that the Steelers need to not let talent like Worilds and Keenan Lewis just walk away in FA. Many of the same people are lamenting the Lamarr Woodley deal while forgetting that he was 27 years old coming off of three consecutive double digit sack seasons. Steeler fans would’ve lost their minds if they let Woodley walk in 2011. You can’t have it both ways folks

  • Alan Felicia

    Hard to believe that Colbert who has over 30+ years as Scout and GM was taking orders from a HC who’s only finished his 3rd year coaching an entire team?! Cowher got the previous GM(Tom Donohoe) fired in 1999 (Cowher’s 9th year) b/c he wanted more draft influence.
    There’s a reason why Kevin Colbert has the title “Director of Football Operation/General Manager”.

  • DB84

    Well I going off Ed bouchette, an extremely reliable beat writer who claims that is what happened. Can’t paste link but search for his chat on11-12-13 and he clearly says that is what happened. I know Colberts position with the team and to think the head coach has no influence at all is foolish.

  • Angel Navarro

    U really think BROWN is no better than a 5th WR? Dude are u crazy, high or just don’t know shit about football? Keep your silly comments to yourself, its obvious we don’t want to hear it or read it. A. Brown is one of the best WR the NFL has to offer & u know this

  • Luke Shabro

    Slow your roll skippy. I was talking about Justin Brown. The kid they drafted in the 6th round. So how about you shut your pie hole. I promise I know more about this than you.

  • Angel Navarro

    Trust me luke u don’t know more football than me, u might believe u do but u don’t & u can take that to the bank skippy.