February 21, 2013
Despite big-money deals, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were both ineffective in 2012.
Charles LeClaire/US Presswire
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2012 Record: 8-8
Key Pending Free Agents: Larry Foote, LB; Casey Hampton, DT; Keenan Lewis, CB; Rashard Mendenhall, RB; Max Starks, T; Mike Wallace, WR; Jonathan Dwyer, RB (RFA); Steve McClendon, DT (RFA); Isaac Redman, RB (RFA); Emmanuel Sanders, WR (RFA)
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (17), 2 (48), 3 (80), 4 (113), 5 (144), 6 (176), 7 (207)
Available Cap Space: About $14 million over the projected limit
GM/Coaching Moves: None
2012 Season Recap
You could tell last summer that success in 2012 just wasn't in the cards for the Steelers.
Despite coming off of a 12-4, playoff-qualifying season in 2011, bad omens hovered over Pittsburgh. Three longtime stars and fan favorites -- Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith -- bid adieu. Mike Wallace decided to try to leverage his breakout season into a new deal with a contract holdout. The running backs, including presumed started Rashard Mendenhall, dealt with injuries. The sordid and sloppy move from Ben Roethlisberger-favored Bruce Arians to Todd Haley at OC unsurprisingly led to drama between the quarterback and his new coach. And then the rookie first- and third-rounders OL David DeCastro and LB Sean Spence, both of whom were being counted on to infuse youth and talent into units thirsty for it, went down in the preseason with serious injuries. DeCastro would wind up missing 12 games, Spence the season.
All of that dissonance bled into the 2012 season, and manifested in mistakes at costly times. Roethlisberger and the Steelers, so typically clutch when the game is on the line, suffered from bad interceptions, fumbles, drops and mental breakdowns. It's fitting, then, that they were officially eliminated from playoff contention when Big Ben overthrew Mike Wallace for a Bengals interception with 14 seconds left and the game tied 10-10 in Week 16, allowing an easy path for Cincinnati to kick the game-winning field goal.
But less tangible influences impacted the Steelers record too. Haley's arrival brought with it a departure from Bruce Arians' vertical-heavy passing game, a scheme built around the Steelers', and Big Ben's, strengths. The emphasis on short passing was supposed to keep Roethlisberger healthy, but he still missed three games with a shoulder and serious rib injury, and the offense took to Haley's plan awkwardly. And despite boasting a defense that was ranked first overall, Pittsburgh was short on game-changing plays; their 20 takeaways ranked 24th in the league, and their 37 sacks were middle of the pack. The offense started fast and slumped late; the defense was troubled early but came on stronger as the season wore on. The Steelers just never were a cohesive unit last year.
Stat To Feel Good About
75.8. The passer rating for all attempts against Steelers starting cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen, according to Pro Football Focus. Allen, in particular, shone in this area. His 68.5 rating against was 10th in the league in 2012.
If It Ain't Broke ...
The Steelers' No. 1 ranked defense was anchored by a secondary that led the league with just 185.2 yards against through the air. Part of that can be explained by the fact that the team faced just 523 attempts against last year -- only five teams faced fewer. Still, there's a lot to like about the unit, especially given the absence of a pass rush threat to help out (more on that below). On a defense that needs to get younger, the emergence of Keenan Lewis (26) and Cortez Allen (24) proved to be a blessing. The Steelers' secondary didn't make a ton of big plays, but it didn't allow many, either. Its 19 touchdowns allowed ranked seventh last year, but its 31 plays of 20-plus yards and two of 40-plus led the league. If the Steelers can retain Lewis' services this offseason (more on that below, too), those two will pair with the still serviceable Ike Taylor to give the Steelers a very stingy trio atop the cornerback depth chart.
10.2 percent. Combined plays on which pressure was achieved by OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, down from 14.3 percent in 2011 and 15.8 percent in 2010.
Must Fix It
There are your prime culprits for the Steelers' lack of heat on opposing quarterbacks. Woodley had an abysmal season made all the worse by recent criticism from an anonymous teammate, who said, "He was awful. He tells us he works out, but we didn't see it. He wasn't in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt." Entering the third year of his six-year, $61.5 million deal at just 28, Woodley is going nowhere, but he has to silence questions about his conditioning and motivation.
Harrison, meanwhile, is due to make $6.57 million in 2012, and has said he's open to restructuring his contract but not taking a pay cut. There's a simple solution there: let him walk. The former Defensive Player of the Year just isn't worth the money or hassle his outspoken nature brings at this point in his career. Talented backup Jason Worilds has flashed ability and is ready to step up as a starter. There should be a ton of options available in the first round for the Steelers to address the deficiency, too, including Ezekiel Ansah, Barkevious Mingo and Dion Jordan.
More On The To-Do List
1. Get younger everywhere on defense. The Steelers boast the league's oldest defense adjusted for snap count (29.2 years old), according to Football Outsiders. Cutting Harrison would be a start, and giving Cameron Heyward more snaps at end over Brett Keisel would help too.
2. Don't let the secondary slip. Re-signing Lewis is key if the Steelers could possibly afford it, and it's long past due for the team to find a good insurance plan and sooner-than-later successor for Troy Polamalu. Texas' Kenny Vaccaro could be a good option there in the first round, but it's more likely the team addresses safety with one of the many prospects pegged for Round 2.
3. Give Big Ben help at receiver. What a difference a year makes. Thought to be one of the team's biggest strengths entering 2012, Wallace and Antonio Brown both had disappointing years, and Wallace is as good as gone. Emmanuel Sanders will be given more responsibility once he is signed to a tender or new deal, but the team has to bring in another No. 2/3 option.
What We'll Be Saying In July
The Steelers' disappointing 2012 began with a roster bloodbath, and 2013 looks likely to start the same way. The Steelers are well over the cap, with eight players slated to make at least $5 million in 2013. Roethlisberger could be extended to help relieve some of that, but the stark reality is that the Steelers are probably going to lose all of their unrestricted free agents (except, possibly, Lewis if they do enough tinkering with their cap space) and will likely have to ax veterans on top of it.
Though the Tomlin-Roethlisberger tandem keeps the Steelers in the playoff contention conversation, this is a team that appears to have its short-term window closing, and the draft likely won't bring enough help to get the Steelers back in the 10-win range. We're going to be looking at the Steelers and wondering if they can do more with less to get back into the playoffs.