Tuesday, December 31, 2013

End of Steelers Season Portends Potentially Positive Future For Offense

A 2-6 start and a 6-2 finish to the season. Offense starts to really assert itself, with the defense doing what it can to assure wins. A young and dynamic player, barely 26-years old, beraks records as the team looks forward to a promising upcoming season.

But, enough about 2006.

The Pittsburgh Steelers ended another decade of home victories over their longtime rivals, the Cleveland Browns, and their 2013 season with a 20-7 win. There was still a slight chance at that point that they could've made the playoffs, with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins having lost and the San Diego Chargers still to play, but then the referees had something to say about it. - http://tinyurl.com/kesvw6h

Instead of a playoff berth, the Steelers end the season as in 2006 with losing key games early that derailed a great second half of the season.

Mark that: the refs are not to blame for the Steelers not making the playoffs. There is an old saying in football - "Never let the officials determine the outcome of the game."

In actuality, it's the Steelers themselves who are to blame. From Art Rooney II, to GM Kevin Colbert, to head coach Mike Tomlin, to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and all the way down to Steely McBeam. (Alright, maybe not Steely.)

Early losses, starting 0-4 and 2-6, too many turnovers and too many big plays by the defense. Too many little things, too.

They say that football is a game of inches. That was never more apparently truthful than on Antonio Brown's half pitch-and-catch, half Hail Mary run up the sidelines to almost win the game against the Dolphins.

There were other little things, also. There was Isaac Redman's fumbled handoff near the goal line in their opening-day loss to the Titans. There was a key dropped pass in Cincinnati by tight end David Paulson. There were many overthrows by Big Ben that were off by inches against the Bears. And the team knows there was no sense losing against Oakland and Minnesota.

Big Ben was more inaccurate this season than people realize. Short passes and screens skew the actual completion percentage. Not to mention his plethora of turnovers - 20 and nearly half of them (nine) in the first four games alone.

Make no mistake, though, there were big plays too. A lot of them - 17 plays given up by the defense of 40 yards or more, including 11 of over 50 yards. Five of those those 17 plays, also, were runs and two of those were by quarterbacks.

Most all of this was early, though. The second half of the season was a smoother ride with only the Carolina Panthers (7-1) having a better second-half record than the Steelers (6-2):
It saw more points scored - 28.2 point average over the final nine games.
It saw a more efficient offense - 14-for-20 in the red zone in the final six games.
It saw fewer turnovers - from -11 in the first four games to +7 over the final eight.
It saw the defense tightening up on the big plays - no plays over 40 in the final six games and none over 50 in the final three.

In 2006, running back Willie Parker, who turned 26-years old during the season, broke the Steelers single-game rushing record, 218 yard by Frenchy Fuqua, when he ran for 223 yards against (guess who?) the Browns.

With his nine-reception, 87-yard effort today against the Browns, not-yet 26-year old wide receiver and team MVP Antonio Brown became the first player in NFL history to have at least five catches and 50 receiving yards in every regular season game.

Brown also broke Yancey Thigpen's single-season receiving yardage mark of 1398 by gaining a franchise-best 1499 yards. Though he finished the year with 110 receptions, that mark fell two shy of Hines Ward’s franchise-best 112 receptions. Still, Brown is just the second player in team history to break triple digits.

Tomlin referenced former outside linebacker James Harrison in his complementary acknowledgment of Brown's work ethic. Brown's season was the embodiment of consistency and something that Ben Roethlisberger has come to rely upon now. A level of trust and comfort that is somewhat unusual for a 5'10" wideout.

Brown also scored nine touchdowns (eight receptions and one punt return), answering the question as to where a loss scores would because of free agents lost. He deservedly earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl as a wide receiver this year. But he also made it this year as a punt returner, his second time doing so, making it the first time a Steelers player has been voted to the Pro Bowl at two positions since Rod Woodson (PR/RCB '89, '90).

There was talk recently about Brown's nomination as team MVP, claiming it should've gone to Big Ben who had a franchise record 375 completions, a 4,261-yard season, 2-to-1 TD/INT ratio and three more game-winning drives and/or fourth-quarter comeback.

We can see the arguments for a possible co-MVP award, but not for it clearly being Big Ben. In fact, there's no debate when considering, again, that he turned it over nine times leading almost single handedly to the team's 0-4 start.

Back to the receivers, the only issue now is a true No. 2 receiver, especially if Emmanuel Sanders leaves via free agency. Because of early offensive problems and hand injuries at two different points in the season, what the Steelers exactly have in Markus Wheaton isn't yet known. We saw flashes in preseason, but that was preseason.

The other wide receivers are Jerricho Cotchery, the Steelers leader in YAC and receiving touchdowns, and Derek Moye. Moye's size (6'5", 210lbs) is very attractive as a third down and red zone target if nothing else. Similar to that of practice squad rookie Justin Brown (6'3", 207lbs and a poor man's Keyshawn Johnson), whose chances to make the team increase if Manny does in fact leave.

With his total of 96 yards vs. the Browns (notice a trend developing here?), running back Le’Veon Bell finished his initial campaign with 1,259 yards from scrimmage - the most in Pittsburgh Steelers franchise history. He bettered the mark set by Franco Harris in 1972 when he gained 1,235 yards.

If you're saying to yourself, "But Bell had more games than Franco who did it in a 14-game season", you'd be wrong -  Bell missed the first three games of the season, meaning that he gained more yards than Franco did in one less game.

Bell rounded into a very good runner who is able to identify the open lane, and showed good hands (though, even by his own admission he dropped more than he should've) out of the backfield. His blocking was good and got better as the season went on as well - all things the Steelers saw in him and that If It Ain't Steel wrote about him coming out of college.

One of the things in particular we wrote about him was that his college career showed that he could run behind an offensive line that wasn't exactly "The Hogs." He was at home, then, in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers used nine different starters and between 12-16 different combinations of blockers this year, and it was hard for them to find stability between the injuries and ineffectiveness. But former seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum, after second-rounder Mike Adams failed to hold him off, seemed to find himself the fixture at left tackle.

Right guard David DeCastro finally started playing up to his draft status as well, as the former first-rounder began road-running and mauling defenders. He looks to be the long-term anchor he was expected to be out of college.

The return of Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey and Fernando Velasco next season will present a good problem at center. Both can play center and guard and are interchangeable. Does Pouncey fit better at guard so as to concentrate on the opposing blocker and not the other assignments as well?

Even Marcus Gilbert solidified himself on the right tackle spot. He isn't exactly an All-Pro, but he holds his own in the run game and is surprisingly better in pass blocking. The opposite is the case with Ramon Foster. Don't be surprised to see the Steelers explore other options, even if only for competition and depth, in the May NFL Draft.

Regardless, their offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell, jr. - dealing with three centers and virtually countless rotations - looks like "Scotty" from Star Trek: the miracle worker. Should be a fixture in the Steel City for a long time.

But make no mistake, as we called them in a previous article, the Killa B's (Big Ben, Brown and Bell), barring contract/Salary Cap issues with Big Ben, are the key to the engine's offense moving forward and the brightest part of the immediate future.


UPDATE: Not more than 24 hours after we wrote this, Jack Bicknell, jr. was fired. The subject has since been covered in a subsequent piece.

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TIDBITS: Per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Alan Robinson, @arobinson_Trib on Twitter, the Steelers-Ravens game on "Thanksgiving night was 8th highest-rated show of fall TV season, according to NBC. Bears-Steelers was No. 11."

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Highlights from Mike Tomlin's final Press Conference:
On the season: "I'm really proud of the guys, the way they improved and the way they stuck together in the midst of adversity." Tomlin said he wouldn't "speak too soon" on potential staff or roster changes, or on "some of the natural business that needs to transpire."

On the 0-4 start: "We need to insulate ourselves a little better (from injury). I could adjust a little bit better schematically."

On the KC/SD situation: "We didn't state a strong enough case. I'm not going to lose sleep over something that went on in a stadium we weren't in." Said he saw Chargers illegal formation on TV and has received "calls, texts, emails" from NFL about it. "It doesn't change what transpired."

On NFL officiating: "There's a lot of work that needs to be done. I look forward to being part of the process of helping it improve."