On the Steelers: Defense could face another bad year
January 4, 2014 9:59 PM
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu might be back next season, but a few of his veteran teammates likely won't be.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If the Steelers were going to miss the playoffs, they did so in the best possible way for them.
A Kansas City kicker missed a 41-yard field goal and the officials also missed a penalty call on the play, putting the San Diego Chargers into the playoffs instead of the Steelers.
Those events, coupled with the NFL's acknowledgement of the blown call by referee Bill Leavy's crew, turned the stay-at-home Steelers into sympathetic figures for many of their fans.
It's as if everyone forgot that their own kicker, Shaun Suisham, missed field goals of 34 and 32 yards in their three-point loss at Oakland. Or that he started his approach too early in a botched field-goal try in a two-point loss at Baltimore.
Suisham, though, had plenty of company among his teammates for the Steelers to produce their second consecutive 8-8 record, missing the playoffs twice in a row for the first time in 13 years.
It began at the beginning and did not let up. In the opener, Emmanuel Sanders dropped a deep pass that might have led to a 9-0 lead against Tennessee at home. They still could have gone up 9-0 except Ben Roethlisberger and Isaac Redman botched a handoff near the goal line.
Few players were left unscathed in helping the Steelers lose eight games, and their coaches joined them. Although they won in Green Bay, they overcame Mike Tomlin's unfathomable decision to not run down the clock and kick a field goal in a tie game. He gave Green Bay enough time to win it and the Packers nearly did. Tomlin reasoned that kicking what would have been from extra point range was a bigger gamble on a sloppy field than running it in. He apparently forgot about the Roethlisberger-Redman exchange.
But enough of looking back, the Steelers have enough work cut out for them over the next several months to try to avoid a third consecutive season watching the playoffs at home. How they do that could become more entertaining than watching their 2013 season unfold, or maybe more painful.
The most painful part for them and their fans will be saying goodbye to veterans who helped them win Super Bowls, such as Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark. Those two are not likely to return from a defense that not only slipped from No. 1 in yards allowed to No. 13 but gave up so many big running plays it dropped to No. 21 against the run. That's their second-lowest ranking in the past 44 seasons and the first time out of the NFL's top eight defending the run in 10 years.
They did not just slip in yards allowed, but in making fewer big plays. Their 34 sacks were the fewest in 23 years and continued a recent trend. They again forced few turnovers. They managed only 10 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries; just six NFL teams had fewer forced turnovers.
Watching Troy Polamalu and Cortez Allen unable to tackle Charles Clay at the 7 on his 12-yard touchdown run that lifted Miami past the Steelers in the snow was as much a lowlight from their season as Terrelle Pryor running 93 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the game in Oakland.
The Steelers defense needs a face-lift. It's a matter of whether they do that with a transplant or a comb-over.
They can help fix their up-against-it salary cap by being ruthless.
They could release Polamalu and Ike Taylor or ask one or both to take salary cuts. Releasing Polamalu would save them $8.25 million and Taylor would save $7 million. That $15.25 million cap savings would take place immediately and could be applied toward signing linebacker Jason Worilds. They could then release LaMarr Woodley in June and pick up another $8 million in cap savings.
They will save $6.25 million when they release offensive tackle Levi Brown, whom they have no intention of keeping. There are other ways around the salary cap, which the Steelers believe is manageable and not in dire shape.
However, shaking most of their highest-paid players out of the roster would drain them of experience, leadership and perhaps even better performance. Taylor and Polamalu, for example, may no longer be in their prime, but do they have anyone else who can match their play?
The same might be said of defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, both among the 21 impending free agents, which includes another safety, Will Allen. Can they do better, or can they even sign them if they want them back? What about inside linebacker Larry Foote, a leader, and something they desperately need, a good run-stopper? He missed virtually all of the 2013 season and will earn a $1.5 million salary in 2014, but he's another veteran they could ask to take a cut in pay.
But they cannot cut everybody. Who plays safety if Clark and Polamalu leave? Who is the third cornerback if they release Taylor? Who plays defensive end with Cam Heyward if Keisel, Hood and Woods all leave?
Nose tackle Steve McLendon looks as though he could play end, but unless they think Hebron Fangupo can start at nose tackle, they need to find one in a hurry.
Jarvis Jones will start at right outside linebacker and either Worilds or Woodley on the other side. Jones should be much better in his second season.
No matter what they do, however, it is difficult to see their 2014 defense playing much better than their 2013 version.
It's a good thing, then, that their offense looks as promising as it has in a long time. Much is in place, although they need depth at two key spots, wide receiver and halfback.
At receiver, they can try to sign Sanders, who will be a free agent and seems destined to leave. They should sign Jerricho Cotchery quickly, before he can become free in March. If Sanders leaves, they still need another. Markus Wheaton had a tough rookie season, partly because a pinky finger was severely broken in the middle of the season. They will need to draft another receiver, probably in the first three rounds, and/or sign a free agent.
They have the halfback in Le'Veon Bell, their first starting back in a long time who knows his way around catching the ball, too. Problem is, they have no other halfbacks under contract and must either re-sign Jonathan Dwyer, draft one or two or sign a free agent or two. Either that or use fullback Will Johnson as a backup halfback.
Other than that, their big decision on offense will be how much to offer Roethlisberger in a contract extension. They traditionally sign their starting quarterbacks with two years left and Roethlisberger's contract runs through 2015. He will be 32 in 2014 and coming off one of his better seasons. He could easily play another five or more. For those who thought he was breaking down, he played every snap for the first time in his career in 2013.
The no-huddle offense suits him and it's about time his coaches recognized that; they should lean on it more in 2014.
They are set with their top two tight ends, Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
Among their biggest concerns of the past two years was the offensive line, which improved through the 2013 season and is relatively set for 2014. Maurkice Pouncey will return at center to join guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro, who will be their next Pro Bowl lineman. Kelvin Beachum is at left tackle and they can let Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams vie at right tackle. The loser in that competition can back up both tackles.
They would do well if they can sign Fernando Velasco for another season. He proved valuable at center for them and could be a backup center/guard. His stock in free agency won't be high because of his Achilles injury.
Suisham, despite his bad day in Oakland and his inexplicable early approach in Baltimore, has been one of the most accurate kickers in the league the past two seasons and keeps that part of their kicking game strong.
However, they need a punter, as long as they do not use two draft picks to get one. They signed one on Friday, Australian native Brad Wing, who played at LSU.
Whether they improve in 2014 or miss the playoffs for a third consecutive year will depend on just how good their offense can be, and whether their defense can stop its steady decline with an infusion of young players.
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