By Michael K. Reynolds
Not to be lost in the fanfare of the nearly miraculous entry into the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Steelers is the fact the team remains a work in progress when it comes to returning to the elite status it’s enjoyed the past decade.
The good news is this is a team on the rise with an impressive 6-2 finish to the season. The Black and Gold is only a few key plays and players away from being a strong contender once again.
Which means there is much to be optimistic about the 2014 season. A few shrewd moves by the front office could get the team positioned for excellence and with a strong youth movement already afoot, the Steelers could be locked and loaded for many years to come.
But ONLY if they are successful this off-season. Which means this could be shaping up to be the most important period of free-agency and draft time the team has experienced since…well…last year, which was critical as well.
So as we wipe away our tears following the Kansas City Chiefs lay-down, here are three key New Years Resolutions for the Black and Gold.
1. Break the Steelers Free Agency Mold
Almost with a touch of arrogance the Steelers front office has approached free agency as if it is the dalliance of idiots and spendthrifts. However; with so many critical holes in the team, Pittsburgh needs to reinvent itself this off-season and become more of a player in free agency. No. This doesn’t mean flying midnight jets out to pick up 100 million dollar free agents, but the team should be strategic and relentless in its approach to picking up mid-level players who can instantly improve the team. It also means they are going to have to take a hard line with their over-priced, over-the-hill veteran players in order to have some money to spend. It’s time to discover how committed these players are to getting another Super Bowl run before their retirement. This includes Ben Roethlisberger whose new contract extension may have more impact on the Steelers future than anything else.
2. All In for the Defense
Perhaps nothing pointed out the lack of confidence Coach Mike Tomlin had in his defense more than when he unsuccessfully went for it on fourth and 10 on his OWN 10-yard line with the game on the line and ample time on the clock against the Dolphins. The once proud Steelers defense that has carried the team on its shoulders for so many years has been in slow decline since their Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers. The list of deficiencies is long: inability to stop the run, lack of speed in the secondary, and at times a seeming absence of will. This is a team short on leadership and talent and they need to focus all of their attention on bringing this unit back on a rise to glory.
Here’s what is needed on the defense through free agency or the draft:
Resigning of Jason Worilds
Pay the man. It’s clear now the only thing Jason Worilds was missing was an opportunity to play. Without Worilds you are left with an overpriced LaMarr Woodley who can’t stay healthy and Jarvis Jones, who by all measures was a large disappointment as a pass rusher. Whether it’s through reasonable negotiation or a franchise tag this is the biggest no-brainer of the off-season. The 3-4 defense is dead without a pass rush.
Acquire a top-end cornerback and another for depth
When you consider he can’t catch, which eliminates playmaking ability, and with his once-vaunted speed in decline, fan and media favorite Ike Taylor will at best be a mediocre number two cornerback in 2014. There is some talk he may move to safety which would address a loss of speed but would do nothing to cure his dolphin flipper hands. Regardless, if he’s willing to take a major pay cut, Ike can still help the Steelers for another couple of years, but it’s time for the team to invest in their next great cornerback of the future. Could that be Cortez Allen? He’s demonstrated he’ll be at least be a strong number two, so he must be extended. But with this pass-happy league, the Steelers will need a “ready to play” cornerback in one of the top two rounds of the draft or through free agency. They’ll need another quality pick in rounds three to five.
Promotion of Shamarko Thomas to safety and acquire another for depth
The acquisition of Will Allen provided some initial stabilization to the defense, but it also stunted the progress of rookie Shamarko Thomas who lost precious playing time. The Steelers invested a 2014 third round draft pick in the young cannonball and they should commit to him at one of the safety positions next year.
Upgrade at inside linebacker
Larry Foote is too old. Vince Williams is too slow. Terence Garvin is not strong enough. Sean Spence is still a pipe dream. Put them together and you might have a player, but this position is too important in the 3-4 to show weakness. This is a prime spot for adding a veteran with some tread on his tire to allow the other players to develop. Or is perhaps Jarvis Jones better suited to inside in the NFL? Regardless of the direction, the Steelers need to get back to greatness at the linebacker position across the board.
Upgrade the front seven against the run
The trademark of the Steelers defense has always been the ability to stop the run. This quality eluded them this season and stands out as a critical leak to fix. Is Steve McLendon unfairly targeted as the problem (as Dave Bryan strongly contends) or is a change at the nose needed? Can Al Woods be the answer? Can Ziggy Hood be resigned and have his strength put to better use? Or with weakness at linebacker and a lack of a Casey Hampton-type nosetackle, should the Steelers consider sprinkling in some 4-3 in their scheme where the talents of McLendon, Woods and Hood may be better suited? This question will need to be answered if the Steelers hope to stop the run in 2014. Keep a sharp eye on the early front office maneuvers as it will tip their hand on their thoughts.
3. Tweak the Offense
One of the biggest surprises of the season is how the offense came together toward the end of the season. The year began with the line being a liability. It ended with the line being a strength. Yes, the run blocking needs to improve but pass protection evolved to be their best in many years. Kelvin Beachum shocked at left tackle. Marcus Gilbert solidified at right. David DeCastro ascended at right guard and Ramon Foster was productive at left. Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Mike Adams and yes…Guy Whimper proved they can add depth and quality to the roster. Even getting Levi Brown resigned at the veteran minimum could really solidify the bench. Then there is the return of Maurkice Pouncey, which is like adding a free number one draft pick to 2014. Le’Veon Bell…answered the rookie bell and Antonio Brown had an All-Pro type of season and has years of productivity ahead of him. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing at peak performance and using a quick release that could extend his career, the future is looking bright for the offense. But some tweaks are still necessary in order to dominate.
Upgrade at wide receiver
Much depends on what the Steelers do with Emmanuel Sanders. Although most of the Steelers faithful are considering him long gone and saying good riddance to boot, it would behoove the team to make an effort to keep him in Black and Gold. It takes years to develop wide receivers and if they could keep Sanders it would bring stability and youth to that position for years. If Sanders is gone, the Steelers will almost certainly need to use one of their first or second round draft picks on another receiver, a selection which is much more desperately needed for defense. Could they use a tall receiver? Are they missing a deeper threat? Yes…but even this year’s offense is strong enough for a Super Bowl if it was paired with one of our great defenses of the recent past. Hopefully Sanders can learn from his former Young Money buddy, Mike Wallace, and realize just because the cash is green, doesn’t mean the grass is greener. Especially when you’re leaving Heinz Field and Steelers Nation.
Retain the offensive line
The Steelers have all of the quality and depth they need if they are able to retain the players they have on the offensive line. What they need now is an intensive off-season to reduce injuries and to develop strength in order to weave together a powerful unit for years to come. Sign where they can and extend where possible. No need to dabble too much in free agency or to go high in the draft if they can simply keep their own.
Prospect at Tight End
The full return to the health of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth will be all the Steelers need to make a major upgrade at tight end for 2014. This allows them to get a low-cost, high upside prospect or two to develop over the next couple of years.
What about you? What do you think are the top New Years Resolutions for the Pittsburgh Steelers?