A Lot Of Positives, Some Questions For Steelers As Season Comes To A Close

By Christina Rivers

With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season coming to a close after a playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, it’s time to reflect on the positives and negatives from their 2014 season. There is a lot of work that remains to be done during the off-season when the Steelers scout their next draft, look at the current roster, analyze their franchise’s position and prepare for losses due to free agency and possible retirements.

Bright spots: Youth and growth

The Steelers saw several young players mature over the course of the season while veterans helped adjust the morale of the team.

Le’Veon Bell had a stellar year, becoming the 2014 team MVP and setting single-season records. His sophomore campaign was cut short by a knee injury in the final game of the NFL regular season, but the performance he gave on the field prior to that was exceptional. Week after week, Bell improved steadily, helping the Steelers regain dominance in the rushing game. ESPN said, “Bell burnished his candidacy for the NFL Most Valuable Player Award by joining the late, great Walter Payton in a most exclusive club.” Bell put two back-to-back games of more than 200 all-purpose yards together and was the only rusher in the NFL do do so since Payton (in 1977 with the Chicago Bears). Bell earned several awards in the league this season, making his contributions significant. Bell finished second only to DeMarco Murray (Dallas Cowboys) in ranked rushers, finishing with 290 attempts for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns. One of the most remarkable statistics is that Bell never once lost the ball and averaged 85.1 yards-per-game. Bell was also ranked 40th in the league as a receiver.

Martavis Bryant came on a bit more slowly in his rookie season. Opposite the league’s leading receiver, Antonio Brown, Bryant contributed with 26 receptions for 549 yards and eight touchdowns, giving the Steelers a tall deep-threat wideout. In the postseason, Bryant added five receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown. Bryant’s 94-yard reception and run in week 14 went into the NFL record books for 2014 as the longest touchdown pass. Keep in mind that Bryant did not get into a game for Pittsburgh until October 20. It’s hard to predict what his numbers may have been if he’d started in all 16 games and the post-season. This young receiver looks primed for an even better year in 2015. “It’s a great feeling to be able to play in the postseason. Not many players are able to reach that,” Bryant said this week. “Some players have been playing for six years and they haven’t been in the playoffs…we all feel like we should have had more, we didn’t want to leave so early. We have to get back to working and focus on the offseason getting better.”

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was a great example of how a young player can transition from college to pro in 2014. Playing in all 16 games during the regular season, Tuitt had 17 combined tackles (two in the post-season), a sack, one forced fumble and a recovered loose ball. The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder was one of the most improved players on the Steelers roster, establishing him as a player the Steelers can build on. In the five games he started after Brett Keisel suffered a season-ending triceps injury, Tuitt recorded 13 of his 19 tackles. It was Tuitt’s fumble recovery against the Ravens in the wild card playoff game that led to a touchdown to get the Steelers back into position for a chance at a win. “I’ve got a year under my belt, everyone else has a year under their belt,” Tuitt said, disappointed that the Steelers didn’t move further into the playoffs. “The young guys and veteran guys are going to mingle and we’re going to get it right [in the post-season]. I guarantee it.”

Gray Areas and Question Marks: The easiest way to explain the 2014 Steelers is that they were ineffectively good.

The Steelers hurt themselves, especially when they played poorly against teams that should have gone into the win column. The first half of the season showed a Pittsburgh team that was not organized game-to-game, played with a roller-coaster mentality and consistency, had disappointing overall performances and a rather bland special teams. The second half of the season showed a team that was gelling, but still had breakdowns despite having Ben Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell at the top of the league in their respective positions.

Statistically, the Steelers were a much better team than they often appeared on the field. Free agents Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Cam Thomas and Ben Tate did little to nothing to add to the overall performance. Tate was a last minute addition to the team due to Bell’s injury, but rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer gave more overall effort, making the signing completely insignificant.

Both the defensive and offensive lines were expected to be much improved in 2014. The results were mixed depending on the opponent, but even worse when it came to individual performances. The units struggled to play consistently and it translated to frustration and losses at critical times. The offensive line progressively got better as the season went on only to give a depressing performance against the Ravens. The defensive line had little pass-rush throughout the season and only came away with 33 sacks.

It is unclear if Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Keisel will return in 2015. It’s very possible the trio played their last downs this season. Harrison, who rejoined the Steelers shortly after retiring in September, said the 2014 season would be “one and done”, but is admittedly reconsidering. “When I first got here, going through the practices and the first few weeks…my body just couldn’t take this, couldn’t handle this,” Harrison said of his feelings early on. “Over the course of the first three to four weeks my body adjusted…I felt better at the end of the year than I did in the previous probably two, three years.” Harrison finished the regular season third among Steelers with 5.5 sacks and third with 14 quarterback pressures at the age of 36. When asked about returning in 2015, Harrison admitted, “It’ll be a long process to decide what it is I really want to do.”

Moving Forward: Shake off past, look to future

The Steelers are the 2014 AFC North divisional champions. No one can take that away from them. The team ranked second overall in the league in passing yards (average per game) with 301.4 and 16th in rushing yards (average per game) with 109.1. Roethlisberger finished with 408 completions for 4,952 yards and 32 touchdowns. Brown had 129 receptions for 13 touchdowns and 1,698 yards. Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles with 87 solo, 45 assisted and two sacks. William Gay had three interceptions go for touchdowns and added 12 passes defensed.

As disappointing as it was for Pittsburgh to lose to a division rival in the first round of the playoffs, the team has wasted no time in putting the past behind them and looking forward. On Monday, the Steelers signed seven players to Reserve/Future contracts: tight end Rob Blanchflower, cornerback Kevin Fogg, wide receiver C.J. Goodwin, defensive end Ethan Hemer, linebacker Howard Jones, defensive lineman Joe Kruger and offensive lineman Alejandro Vilanueva. All seven of the signees ended the season on the team’s practice squad.

Defensive end Cam Heyward and outside linebacker Jason Worilds both spoke of progress. “We saw a lot of guys grow…a lot of guys who took a next step, and I’m looking for them to take another step this off-season,” said Heyward. “We can only improve. Opposed to a year ago or two years ago, it’s a whole different team, a whole different feel to this team. For us to come out here and make it this far with this unit, we know that our potential is as high as we want it to be.” That is a big statement. The Steelers hold the future in their hands and it will take motivation and a good mentality to own it.

“(Bryant’s) a guy who when I say I’m proud the way people played, he did some great things every week and kept getting better every week,” said Roethlisberger. “He’s going to to learn and grow.” As for Markus Wheaton, Roethlisberger said, “(He’s) going to grow and keep learning. He really got better as the year went along, as well. I know they all want to try to keep up with Antonio Brown so I anticipate them all striving to be as good as (he is).”

There is little doubt that the Steelers will be evaluating college players in anticipation of the 2015 NFL Draft as well as the status of free agents who may fit well into the team offensively and defensively. There will be a lot of speculation over the course of the next few weeks as to what positions the Steelers will target. It is highly likely that Pittsburgh will be looking at tape of running backs, defensive backs and even linebackers. It isn’t out of the question that there will be some discussion of finding a quarterback that would be a faster learner than Landry Jones who just never got into a rhythm in the Steelers offense.

News on a contract deal with Roethlisberger is expected as well, making it probable that the Steelers will desire to keep the league leader on their team for the 2015 season.

For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.

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