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Steelers post mortem: Offense
January 11, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode
Instead of prepping for a divisional round playoff game this week – as we’ve become accustomed (and spoiled) to expect – the Steelers are doing damage control on another player’s brush with the law, wondering whether their offensive coordinator interviewed for the Cardinals head coaching job or not and generally slinking into what promises to be a very unsatisfying offseason. Here’s a position-by-position look at what (little) went right in 2012, what (mostly) went wrong and how it might all change (or not) next year. We’ll talk offense today and defense next week:
The silver lining here is that the Steelers have more young talent at this position than they’ve had in a decade. The dark cloud is that two starters – Max Starks and Ramon Foster – and a key reserve – Doug Legursky – are unrestricted free agents so there’s likely to be another round of position shuffling next year. Maurkice Pouncey was in very good form again and stayed healthy for the most part. Foster was solid and steady and made a case for himself for a long-term deal. Whether he gets one or not probably depends on whether Pittsburgh thinks Willie Colon can get through a season uninjured. Colon was terrible early in 2012 after his switch to G but brutally effective by midseason before succumbing to injury in his third straight IR-shortened season. No matter how many times the Steelers try to get rid of him, somehow Starks always winds up back at LT and this year he was rock solid there. However, with the dollars invested in young tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, and the flashes Kelvin Beachum showed late in the season, coupled with the fact Starks is healthy this season and will draw considerable interest from other teams, it’s iffy, at best, that Starks will be back in 2013. But that means either Gilbert (powerful but lacks quick feet) or Adams (athletic but weak upper body) would have to step into that crucial pass-protection role. First-round pick David DeCastro had a forgettable rookie season with a major knee injury, a rushed return and then several less-severe injuries. He certainly showed flashes in limited duty, but he also showed there are still holes in his game. In 2013, we should learn if he’s the 10-year starter the Steelers thought they drafted or the second coming of John Reinstra.
2012 grade: B-
2013 big question: Are either of the pups ready for the blind side?
It was really a tale of two seasons here as Todd Haley’s offense looked like a perfect match for Ben Roethlisberger early with the ball coming out quickly, the chains moving often and his quarterback rating soaring. Sacks were few and completions were plenty. And perhaps most importantly, tight end Heath Miller was a frequent and dangerous target. But after Roethlisberger’s controversial injury against the Chiefs, nearly all those things disappeared for Pittsburgh’s final seven games (including four of Roethlisberger’s). There was no rhythm, no accuracy, not much Miller, few first downs and even fewer wins. So which was the “real” thing? We’ll find out in 2013, but it’s important to point out here that football isn’t played in a vacuum and the problems Pittsburgh had at wide receiver (drops and fumbles) and running back (lack of talent) directly and dramatically influenced our perception of Roethlisberger’s play. But this much is certain, the Steelers’ franchise quarterback is 30 years old now and 2012 was largely a waste of one of the years in the prime of his career. There’s additional intrigue here about whether either of the Steelers’ backups will be back. Certainly, Byron Leftwich has demonstrated that he can’t be counted on to make it through a single game as a backup. And while Charlie Batch’s feel-good win at Baltimore was the high point of the season, his dead-armed dud against the Browns was a low point.
2012 grade: C+
2013 big question: Will Ben buy in?
This was a mess before the Chris Rainey release on Thursday and now it’s a bond fide clusterfrack. Of the top four backs from 2012, two are unrestricted free agents, one is a restricted free agent and one is no longer a Steeler. In a contract year, Rashard Mendenhall (UFA) flamed out badly, performing poorly and becoming a locker room problem by year’s end. However, in doing so, he might have increased his chances of returning to Pittsburgh since his “talents” might now be secured for a lesser deal. Whether the Steelers SHOULD try to re-sign Mendenhall is another question. As noted often in our blog and demonstrated every week in the NFL, the value of the running back position in terms of team wins is declining and adequate backs can be found almost anywhere, as illustrated by the role that DuJuan Williams (a back who was in Pittsburgh’s camp for four days in August before being cut) is playing in Green Bay’s current playoff run. Jonathan Dwyer (RFA) showed flashes of being a mini-Bus type of player but an injury and the Steelers odd substitution patterns kept us from truly knowing what he offers. Isaac Redman (UFA) had one monster game against the Giants but was largely terrible otherwise, especially in short yardage situations, which were once thought to be his specialty (although to be fair to Redman, it’s difficult to get a half yard on third down when you’re lined up eight yards deep in the I). Chris Rainey showed tremendous promise as a returner, but did nothing as a third-down back to make anyone think he could excel in that role in the future. His departure hurts Pittsburgh more from a PR point of view than on the field. Will Johnson was hit and miss (literally!) in his first year as Pittsburgh’s blocking back and it’ll be interesting to see if he and David Johnson (returning from a serious knee injury) compete for one roster spot next fall.
2012 grade: C-
2013 big question: Turning to the draft again?
Three words: What. A. Nightmare. Even the most ardent of pessimists would have had a hard time predicting the truly terrible season Pittsburgh’s talented, young receiving corps turned in. In retrospect, it probably started when the Steelers decided to lock Antonio Brown up long term with a very reasonable deal (5 years/$42 million) which indicated they would not be locking Mike Wallace up with what almost certainly would have been a very unreasonable deal, given Wallace’s desire to make “Fitz money” (referring Larry Fitzgerald’s 8 year/$120 million deal) despite the fact he doesn’t have “Fitz talent” or “Fitz impact.” The rest, as they say, is history. Wallace pouted, held out, finally reported and then half a$$ed his way through the season in an attempt to stay healthy for what he hopes will be a free agent cash bonanza. And to make matters worse, Brown regressed from his team MVP form (you can make a case that his fumbles late against Oakland and Dallas turned Pittsburgh’s entire season around) while suffering through an always-troubling high-ankle sprain. Emmanuel Sanders showed flashes (as he always does) but also suffered through a series of deflating drops and fumbles. Jericho Cotchery made some big catches when he was healthy enough to get on the field, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Of course, the Steelers brought back Plaxico Burress late in the year and he looked impressive just about every time they tried to get him the ball, leaving the door open for another one-year deal (although his inability to play special teams might squelch such an idea).
2012 grade: Is there an F-?
2013 question: Which AB shows up?
For nine game, it looked Heath Miller and Todd Haley were a match made in heaven as the quiet giant of the Steelers offense became the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s passing game. But in the final seven games, Miller got lost in the shuffle again before suffering a serious and season-ending knee injury in Week 15. It’s expected that Miller will be able to return to form in 2013 from the injury, but at age 30 and entering his ninth NFL season, that’s no guarantee. Backup Dave Paulson was serviceable in his rookie year, but showed nothing to indicate Pittsburgh made the right choice in keeping him and waiving Wes Saunders in the preseason. Leonard Pope book ended the season with TD catches, but was largely invisible between.
2012 grade: B+
2013 question: Will Heeeeeeathhhhh be heeeeaaaalthy?
It still seems somewhat surreal that a journeyman kicker whom the Steelers turned to in desperation after Jeff Reed’s flameout is on the verge of surpassing Gary Anderson in many people’s minds as the best in team history. But that’s Shaun Suisham’s story and it certainly was the best story in black and gold this season. He finished the season making 28 of 31 kicks, but think about the three he missed: two bad decisions by Mike Tomlin to attempt 50+ kicks late in a game and a bad snap by Greg Warren against the Bengals. Suisham was “that close” to being perfect in 2012.
2012 grade: A+
2013 question: Is this Shaun Suisham now the real Shaun Suisham?
Of course, it’s impossible to judge an offensive coordinator on a single season but we saw both the promise and pitfalls of a Todd Haley offense in 2012. And when looking back, remember that the stench of the final four games makes it very hard to remember how stellar things looked at times early in the year. At its best, against Washington and the New York Giants, Haley’s offense was sleek and safe, utilizing the team’s talent in efficient combinations, maximizing the offensive linemen’s strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. At its worst, it was plodding and predictable, unable to adjust to opponents who were taking away the quick throws. For his part, Haley was the ultimate team guy, calm on the sidelines, uninterested in feuding with Ben Roethlisberger in the media, refusing to play the blame game.
2012 grade: Incomplete
2013 questions: Who’s back at WR and RB?