Steelers coach Mike Tomlin evidently kept the team motivated to finish .500, but an 0-4 start doesn't look good for the coaching staff.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Early-season mistakes and turnovers by Ben Roethlisberger were a good part of the reason for the team's slow start. And the only comeback victory he directed was in the first meeting against the Ravens. His record number of attempts and five 300-plus-yard passing performances were largely the result of playing from behind. Still, he brought the team back in at least four games where they were headed for embarrassment and is the reason they finished 8-8 and not 5-11.
The Steelers averaged 3.5 ypc, their lowest in 10 years, and didn't have a 100-yard rusher until Week 15. But the development of Le'Veon Bell as a focal point of the offense had a tremendous impact. Bell set a franchise rookie record for most total yards (1,259), despite missing the first three games, and averaged more than 22 touches a game. In the last five games, he averaged better than 4 ypc and 109.6 total yards.
Any question how Antonio Brown would perform as the No. 1 receiver was answered in an emphatic way. His Pro Bowl numbers --110 catches, 1,499 receiving yards -- were the result of consistency and ability to make plays after the catch. Emmanuel Sanders had a productive year (67 catches, 740 yards), but critical drops will be what everyone remembers. And was there a better value in the league that slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery?
The season got off to a bad start with the injury to Maurkice Pouncey, the ineffective performance of LT Mike Adams and the abandonment of the zone-blocking schemes. But Fernando Velasco was an outstanding pickup, Kelvin Beachum settled in on the left side and G David DeCastro is on the path to the Pro Bowl. After allowing 36 sacks in the first nine games, the line allowed just seven in the last seven. The running game showed signs of improvement, averaging 4.1 ypc in the final five games.
The emergence of Cam Heyward as a dominant player was the brightest spot for a defense that didn't have many grand moments. And Brett Keisel, when healthy, played as well as he ever has at age 35. But that was about it. Opponents averaged 4.3 yards a rush and had 18 rushing touchdowns, the most since 1988. The biggest hole was in the middle where the defense never learned how to play without NT Casey Hampton.
The early-season injury to ILB Larry Foote was more troublesome than imagined. That put the onus on Lawrence Timmons to set the defense and that led to problems. LaMarr Woodley was not able to make up for the loss of James Harrison. Rookie Jarvis Jones failed to keep blossoming after an impressive preseason. But the development of Jason Worilds into a pass-rushing force was a plus. And rookie Vince Williams showed he is capable of being, at the very least, a competent backup.
Too many big pass plays and too few INTs were the bane of the unit for most of the season. After allowing four pass plays of 40-plus yards the previous two seasons combined, they allowed 12. Even Ike Taylor struggled. Cortez Allen came on strong and William Gay was more solid than anyone expected. Getting every snap out of Troy Polamalu should have been more of a plus, but a lack of speed created problems.
Shaun Suisham missed only two field goals and has converted 63 of 68 attempts in the past 34 games, a 92.6 conversion rate that is the best in the NFL in that period. Antonio Brown had five punt returns of 40-plus yards. But there was no real kickoff-return threat and punting was a problem from the time they cut Drew Butler. Jacoby Jones' 73-yard kick return in Baltimore remains one of the defining moments of a frustrating season.
The ability to right the ship and stave off a really embarrassing season is a testament to Mike Tomlin. Another 8-8 season is not something of which he and the organization are proud, but everything was headed in a more disastrous direction, especially when the team was 2-6. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley eventually found some common ground with Roethlisberger and entrusted a rookie to be the focal point of the offense. But there is no question the defense performed far below the usual standards of coordinator Dick LeBeau with a league-high 11 scrimmage plays of 50-plus yards.
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