An analysis of the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers as they head into their regular season opener on Sept. 7 against the Cleveland Browns:
Seventeen. Seventeen? Seventeen!
Check out photos of the Steelers' current 53 man roster.
During the 2013 season, the Steelers' opponents posted 17 plays of 40-or-more yards against the team's defense, and 13 of those plays came in seven different losses. Only Tennessee, which defeated the Steelers, 16-9, in the opener didn't cash in with one of those big plays.
"We can play a whole lot better, and we can coach a whole lot better," said coordinator Dick LeBeau about the plan to reduce those kinds of plays in 2014. "I mean, a minimum of five or six plays would've totally changed the look of our statistical picture. But every play counts, and we did give up too many big plays. That's always been one of our strengths. We intend to make it (a strength) again."
Stopping the run
Five of those 17 were running plays, and to compound the angst the defense came right out of the gate this preseason allowing a 73-yard touchdown run by Rashad Jennings in the first quarter of the opener against the New York Giants.
On that play by Jennings, Cam Heyward said it was his fault that there was a gash in the defensive front, and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons was held, both of which combined to allow Jennings to break into the secondary. But it was once Jennings broke into the secondary that had Coach Mike Tomlin so displeased.
"Sometimes you're so committed to pre-snap disguises that often it puts you in poor position to execute the job that it is you need to do," said Tomlin, whose first NFL job was as a secondary coach. "You just have to have an awareness of that, and it often happens because you don't have control over when the ball is snapped. So you have to respect your original landmark, or original destination, regardless of where you are, and then when the ball is snapped you have to be able to move to that and play the game of angles when you're not in a position to do so. That's what happened on that run. We were executing a nice disguise, and the guys weren't positioned in the areas they needed to be. That happens from time to time, and so you have to be able to adjust individually and collectively. It's a collective thing sometimes when runs break out like that."
That play came when the Steelers were in their nickel defense, which employs just two linemen instead of three, and more and more opponents are going to personnel groupings that have them reacting with their nickel alignment. LeBeau believes offensive football is going to continue to trend towards the up-tempo, multiple-receiver style, and so the Steelers are going to continue to see such groupings.
Increasing the number of takeaways
Besides big plays allowed, the Steelers defense has been below the line in recent seasons in takeaways. In their past 48 regular season games, the Steelers have 31 interceptions. The NFL average is about one interception per game, and so the Steelers, at .65 per game, have been below average in that category for three years now, and the inability to take the football away means a defense has to shut opponents down. With the way the game is being officiated now, shutting down an opponent is not a reasonable expectation.
"I always tell guys that it's about technique and opportunity," said Tomlin about takeaways. "Both things are required, and obviously the better the technique the better your opportunities are going to be – both in the quality of them and the frequency of them. And the big thing is when you get an opportunity, you have to cash in. Those are the things we've been talking about. Sometimes you get enamored with takeaways and become preoccupied. But the reality is if you're playing good, sound ball, if you are where you're supposed to be, if you see what you're supposed to see and are practicing sound technique, those opportunities will present themselves to you."
Pressure is closely tied to creating takeaways, and the Steelers are going to be turning to some new players to provide that for them in 2014. Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones are the starting outside linebackers, and if the unit is to be effective, the outside linebacker positions should end up combining for close to 20 sacks over the regular season.
Maybe Arthur Moats is a contributor there, and maybe more sacks than normal come from the inside duo of Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, and maybe Cam Heyward and/or some of the other defensive linemen chip in a little more than is usually expected in that area.
The numbers have to come from somewhere, though, because the Steelers haven't finished a season with even 40 sacks since 2010, which also happens to be the last time they won a division title.
The areas here with difference-making potential are the return game and Shaun Suisham.
Signed to a deal during training camp that binds him to the team through 2018, Suisham came to Pittsburgh in November 2010 after Jeff Reed was released. During his first full season with the Steelers, in 2011, Suisham was a sub-par 23-for-31 (74.2 percent) on all field goal attempts, with an even worse 63.2 percent (12-of-19) from 30-49 yards.
But ever since, Suisham has been money. He converted 90.3 percent (28-of-31) of all field goal attempts in 2012, including a perfect 20-for-20 from 30-49 yards. Last season, he converted 93.8 percent (30-for-32), including 91.3 percent (21-of-23) from 30-49 yards.
During the preseason, Suisham missed a couple of field goals (38 and 46 yards) and one of those 33-yard PATs, but the hope is that's some reflection of the unsettled snapper/holder situation he as dealing with over the summer. With Greg Warren back, Suisham only must adjust to Brad Wing, and that has to get done before kickoff on Sept. 7.
Going with an inexperienced punter
The long-used example of the relative importance of a punter is the Steelers' 2008 season when the team won Super Bowl XLIII with Mitch Berger, but this defense isn't as dynamic as that unit. This team will need its punter to be an asset.
The plan for the summer was to have first-year pro Brad Wing compete with veteran Adam Podlesh, but Podlesh never reported to training camp because of a family situation that developed. Over the course of camp and the preseason, Wing apparently impressed Tomlin sufficiently to get a shot at keeping the job throughout the regular season.
"He's been consistently above the line, and when he hasn't been he has responded appropriately," said Tomlin about Wing. "To me, that shows not only growth but also the mentality that's geared toward growth that you need to excel in our business."
The man with all of the eyes on him when it comes to the team's return game is Dri Archer, and the Steelers need him to develop into a weapon. Through the preseason, Archer had few opportunities. He returned one kickoff for 20 yards; on punts, he had five fair catches, one return for 1 yard, and one return for 3 yards.
Archer handled the ball very consistently, which is Job No. 1, but it seems as though he still is learning the difference between being aggressive and taking foolish chances.
As for who will handle the returning chores in the regular season, Tomlin said, "In the punt game you'll see Antonio Brown and Dri Archer. In the kickoff return game you'll see Dri Archer along with LeGarrette Blount. (Brown) is a Pro Bowl-caliber return man so that's what you do with those guys. You play them."
"When you look at last season, the first half of it, especially the first four-five games," said coordinator Todd Haley, "we turned the ball over too many times. We obviously had some adversity with injuries and things like that, but when the turnovers stopped that's really when we started playing better football."
During that 0-4 start last season, the Steelers turned the ball over 11 times, and in the other two losses that made them 2-6 at the midway point they had another five turnovers. In finishing 6-2 over the second half of their schedule, the Steelers turned it over seven times in those eight games.
"We just had to put an emphasis on protecting the football at all costs," said Haley, "because when you turn the football over in this league, you really hurt your chances of winning games. I think the guys just took it to heart and focused on protecting it."
The onus for protecting the football always falls on the quarterback, and Ben Roethlisberger will have to be mindful of that, especially early in the season so as not to put too much stress on the other components of the team. The first step toward winning a game is not giving it away, and when teams give the ball away they often also are giving away their chance to win at the same time.
A new corps of receivers
The receiving corps is going to be different, but does that necessarily mean worse? Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore in place of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery might seem like a step in the wrong direction, especially at the start of the season, but it's also worth remembering that Sanders dropped a potential game-changing touchdown pass on the Steelers first offensive snap of the opener.
As this season begins, look beyond the wide receivers for the group to be charged with the responsibility of catching Roethlisberger's passes. Tight end Heath Miller and running backs Le'Veon Bell and Dri Archer will be important components of the Steelers passing attack, and their potential as receivers hints that the sum total can be more than the team got last year.
Improving the running attack
The improvement of the running attack was a stated goal for 2014, and LeGarrette Blount was added during the offseason to pair with Bell as the two primary ball carriers. Things seemed to be quite promising up until the day the Steelers were due to leave for a preseason game in Philadelphia only to learn that Bell and Blount had been stopped by police and cited for possession of marijuana.
As disappointing and unacceptable to management as this development was, it alone doesn't figure to cost the pair any playing time this season. The recent history of NFL discipline indicates the league won't act until the matter is adjudicated in the courts, and the NFLPA will protest any league punishment if the Steelers act on their own. Because of these factors, the best guess is that Bell and Blount won't face any discipline until 2015 and that it will come from the NFL office.
"I'm excited about this group," said Tomlin. "I view this very optimistically. I'm excited about the progress that we made. I'm excited that we have an opportunity to continue to grow and progress even as we get into this season. Obviously we have a job to do when we step into stadiums and win along the way during the course of that development, but there's probably more of an opportunity here for continued growth during the season than there has been in recent years because I believe that's the component you pick up with a youthful group. This is a more youthful group than we've had here in recent years, and that's exciting to me."
The Steelers have had two playoffless seasons in a row, but they have managed to conduct a dramatic roster makeover at the same time without finishing with a losing record. If they are to complete this transition with a playoff spot in 2014, their defense will have to cut down on the number of big plays allowed while simultaneously increasing the number of big plays – sacks and takeaways – it makes. On offense, the recipe will be to protect the football while keeping their franchise quarterback healthy through a combination of consistent offensive line play and a reliable running attack, and supplementing both of those elements with improved efficiency in the red zone.
Every team in the league can be successful by following the same basic formula, but 2014 should go a long way toward revealing whether the Steelers are moving in the proper direction with the players they've brought in to re-tool their roster.