Offseason Report Card: Steelers
With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
The Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs in 2012. Then they missed them again in 2013. Just like that, the franchise is facing its longest postseason drought since 1998-2000, a stretch that Pittsburgh followed with three Super Bowl trips and two Super Bowl wins over the next decade.
GM Kevin Colbert has spent the past two offseasons trying simultaneously to strip down his team's unwieldy payroll and to stay competitive as the championship window with his core pieces closes. The results of that work have been mixed at best.
"I think with any decision, you look back on it and you start with where we were. We finished 8-8 [last season]," Colbert said. "In my opinion, none of the decisions [we made] were good enough because we weren’t in the playoffs."
The revamping stayed full throttle this offseason, with the Steelers saying farewell to longtime defensive stalwarts Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley, as well as receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. A host of others departed along with that group, replaced by a few familiar names: LeGarrette Blount, Darrius Heyward-Bey and so on.
What Steelers fans want to know after another plethora of changes is this: Did they work? Frankly, it's hard to say right now. The receiving corps, secondary and both lines will enter training camp in need of players to step up. At none of those spots does Pittsburgh appear markedly better than it did a year ago, though the offensive line at least is, for now, healthier.
On the surface, the 2014 offseason feels like another transition year for Pittsburgh. The roster shuffling may be enough to end this mini-playoff drought. Anything beyond that will require breakthrough performances from a multitude of guys.
Best acquisition: Ryan Shazier, LB.
There is an adage in baseball that teams must be strong up the middle -- catcher, the second base/shortstop combo and center field. The Steelers addressed the football equivalent of that approach this offseason, adding bulk at nose tackle (Cam Thomas and massive rookie Daniel McCullers), nabbing Mike Mitchell away from Carolina to play safety and drafting Shazier out of Ohio State.
Shazier may wind up being the most important pickup of the bunch. The Steelers ranked 21st against the run last season, struggling to find a legit complement next to Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth-round pick who filled that role for much of 2013, returns but will have to win his starting job back.
That's because Shazier has the potential to be an absolute force in the Pittsburgh defense. He can cover all sorts of ground, be it as a run defender, blitzer, or in pass coverage. Count him among the early Defensive Rookie of the Year favorites.
"What we needed was a defensive playmaker," Tomlin said, "and he fills the bill in that regard."
Biggest loss: Emmanuel Sanders, WR.
Sanders is not a game-changing wide receiver in this league. He never will be compared to Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green or Brandon Marshall or even the Steelers' own Antonio Brown. But what he was for this team -- and for QB Ben Roethlisberger -- was a steady and reliable presence on a roster without too many guys fitting that bill. Sanders finished last season with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns, all ranking in the top three on the team.
Are those stats irreplaceable? Hardly. Beyond Brown and TE Heath Miller, however, the Steelers have a rather uncertain setup at receiver. Just this offseason alone, they added Heyward-Bey, Lance Moore and rookie Martavis Bryant, who join 2013 draft pick Markus Wheaton. At least one or two of those players must provide some help for Brown in the passing game or Roethlisberger is going to struggle to move the football.
Perhaps those pieces fall into place and Sanders becomes no more than dust in the wind for the Steelers. Until then, Roethlisberger ought to be a little concerned.
Underrated draft pick: Jordan Zumwalt, OLB.
A few hours into Day 3 of this year's draft, I tweeted: "Some team's going to be real happy picking Jordan Zumwalt before this is over."
Approximately two minutes later, the Steelers nabbed him at No. 192 overall.
If the UCLA product can secure a spot on the roster, expect to hear his name called more than a few times over the upcoming season. That will be especially true if Zumwalt proves he can hack it on special teams. He does not have the physical gifts of, say, Shazier, but he does have a habit of finding the football while leaving everything on the field each play.
In other words, Zumwalt is precisely the type of player that the blue-collar Pittsburgh fans love to rally behind.
Looming question for training camp: Has the secondary improved at all?
Statistically, Pittsburgh was not all that ghastly on the back end last season -- it finished top-10 in passing yards and passing TDs allowed. Those numbers are slightly disingenuous to what actually occurred, however.
The Steelers may not have allowed a ton of yards or touchdowns through the air, but they also did not force many key turnovers either. Twenty-eight teams topped the Steelers' 10 interceptions last season; no one on the roster picked off more than two passes.
Most culpable for the pass-defense issues was veteran Ike Taylor, who turned in arguably the worst season of his career. He certainly did not look the part of a No. 1 cornerback anymore. There was little done this offseason to protect Pittsburgh against another Taylor flop, either, barring a breakthrough year from Cortez Allen or one of the other CBs below him on the depth chart.
"Cortez Allen toward the end [of last] season was breaking out to what we thought he could be, a ballhawk," Taylor told ESPN.com this week. "Will Gay is real solid. I think last year was the best year of his career."
The Mitchell-for-Clark swap at safety will take some time to adjust to, as well -- Clark had been paired with Polamalu (aside from when one or the other was injured) since 2006. The new tandem of Mitchell and Polamalu must work, because 2013 draft pick Shamarko Thomas has not progressed the way the Steelers hoped he would.