How can the Steelers get back to the playoffs?

Since the 1972 season the Pittsburgh Steelers have missed the playoffs three straight years only two different times: A four-year run under Chuck Noll between 1985 and 1988, and a three-year run in the Bill Cowher era between 1998 and 2000.

After consecutive 8-8 seasons they enter the 2014 season trying to avoid a third three-year postseason drought.

So what needs to happen this season?

Whenever Bill Cowher would hold his weekly press conference he would almost always remind anybody watching that there “is a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL,” and even though it was his standard go-to cliche, he was absolutely right, and the Steelers were on the wrong side of that line one too many times in 2013.

Over the past three seasons the average NFL playoff team finished the regular season with a point differential of plus-99. Some teams got in with worse marks, but that number is pretty much the can’t-miss line for a playoff berth. Since 2003, 69 of the 71 teams that finished plus-99 or better ended up making the playoffs. The only two exceptions were the 2010 San Diego Chargers and the 2004 Buffalo Bills, both of which missed by a single game.

If we take plus-99 as our goal, the Steelers, who finished last season with a plus-9 mark, would need to improve by 90 points this season. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually quite reachable. It’s a difference of 5.6 points per game. Or, in other words, one additional field goal for and allowing one fewer field goal per game. Keep in mind, the Steelers lost two games last season by a single field goal.

Two additional wins gets them comfortably in the playoffs.

So now that we know the goal, what are the biggest hurdles facing the 2014 Steelers?

1) More of the second half offense, less of the first half offense

Initially a harsh critic of the Todd Haley experience, I think this offense has quite a bit of potential, and it started to show in the second half of the 2013 season when they averaged 24.3 points per game over the final eight weeks of the season (and that’s after I removed the three defensive touchdowns and one special teams touchdown they scored during that stretch). The no-huddle might actually be a real part of the offense this season, the offensive line (at least until somebody gets hurt) seems like it should be passable, I like the duo of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount and a full season of Heath Miller (and Bell) should be big.

2) But what about the wide receivers?

The biggest question mark on the offense is what they’re going to get out of their wide receivers. You know what Antonio Brown is going to give you, and Lance Moore seems like an adequate replacement for Jerricho Cotchery as the wily veteran in the slot. After that, it’s a bunch of wild cards. Markus Wheaton rarely saw the field last season, apparently due to a finger injury that wasn’t really known about until after the season, but showed a lot of promise this preseason. Fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant satisfies Pittsburgh’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for a “tall, big target receiver” but is all potential at this point, same with Justin Brown. After doing nothing over the first two weeks of the preseason, Darrius Heyward-Bey played his way onto the roster against Philadelphia and Carolina. The Steelers have never been afraid to treat wide receivers like interchangeable parts, and they’ve won with thinner groups than this (look at the wide receivers Roethlisberger was throwing to in 2005 after Hines Ward) but the development of Wheaton and Bryant is going to play a big role in just how good the offense can be this season.

3) The young guys on defense need to be as good as advertised

Specifically, first-and second-round picks Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt.

A defense that for three years was known for being “old, slow and done” is suddenly a lot younger and a lot faster, and for the first time since 2001 when Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell were causing havoc for opposing offenses could see two rookies starting if/when Tuitt jumps over Cam Thomas on the depth char.

Since 2007 the Steelers’ starting defense has had an average of 30 years old. The group of 11 that is set to start on Sunday in the season opener against Cleveland will have an average of 27 and a number of new faces sprinkled throughout (Shazier, Thomas, Tuitt Mike Mitchell, a full season of Jarvis Jones). And none of that is a bad thing, because last year’s defense was bad.

Not just bad by Steelers standards, but bad by NFL standards.

Along with questions at cornerback (including but not limited to, how much does Ike Taylor have left in the tank) the defensive line has a lot of “what ifs” on it. That leaves the linebackers who are going to have to be the stars of the defense and create the type of pressure that has not consistently been there the past couple of years.

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  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Adam, be careful… more good content like this and we’ll expect a podcast or something.

    We were a playoff-caliber team for the second half of the season. Play like that for another few games and we’ll be back in the playoffs. Last year, if AB’s toe stayed in against the Fins or the Chiefs didn’t blow the finale against SD, I think we could have won a playoff game.

    I was pretty worried about the WRs a month ago, but with Heath healthy, Archer a receiving threat, and at least some decent flashes from the WRs in the preseason, I’m less worried there. Plus the RBs and OL should be better, and more no huddle should help.

    I agree that the rate of development of the youth on D will go a long way to determining how good the team is this season (I’m optimistic for 2015 no matter what).. I think the key guy for the ceiling of the team this year is Jarvis; if he’s great, the team might be great. But if he’s mediocre, the team likely won’t be more than a borderline playoff team.

    • Eric

      Good point about Jarvis. If he pans out the Steelers are in a great position defensively for years to come, but they’re in trouble if he is just a guy. I haven’t been too worried about him because plenty of great players struggle in year 1 (exhibit A: Troy Polamalu) but he needs to show something in his 2nd year (exhibit B: Troy Polamalu).

  • Cols714

    Considering the team was very close to the playoffs the last two years, I think it’s pretty likely they make it this year.

    The NFL is a crazy league. A bit of bad luck or a bit of good luck is all it takes from winning the Super Bowl to being 8-8. I’m pretty confident this team wins at least 10 games and goes to the playoffs.

    And Big Ben has been a very good playoff QB.

  • Eric

    Football Outsiders projections are out. The Steelers are projected to win the division based upon the weakness of the schedule. The Steelers offense and defense are projected at middle of the pack (11 and 13, respectively). Bengals are projected to be slightly better overall. Cleveland and Baltimore’s projections aren’t as favorable.

    http://www.footballoutsiders.com/dvoa-ratings/2014/2014-dvoa-projections

  • Randy Steele

    I’m not sure what Steelers’ team Mr. Gretz was watching this pre-season, but the one I saw would be lucky to win half its regular season games.

    I know… I know… it was just pre-season, but if we had paid more attention to the Steelers’ pre-season play last year, we wouldn’t have been surprised by their dismal start.

    The situation at cornerback is dreadful. Safety Mike Mitchell, our big ticket free-agent acquisition this year, is playing dazed, confused, and angry. Troy may be wiser than ever, but he’s older than ever, too. Plus, he’ll often have to continue his miscast role as an ersatz linebacker during various schemes.

    The line we saw this pre-season is so small when playing the nickel defense (which is now Tomlin’s real base defense), that it should be renamed the ‘plug nickel’. We must hope and pray that Butler and LeBeau can patch together something that is stout enough to hold opposing running backs to fewer than six yards a carry.

    The starting O-line looked pretty decent, but injuries are inevitable (we’re talking about the Steelers, remember), and their bench strength is sadly questionable. By the way, who’s going to help tote the pig when Cheech and/or Chong goes down? Dri Archer?! Speaking of which, it looks like we’ll have to risk Antonio Brown returning punts again this season.

    What happens if he gets hurt? The receiving corps after Brown is anybody’s guess. By the way, the reason we didn’t see Lance Moore for most of pre-season is because he’s suffering from a groin injury, plus Matavius. Bryant has a dislocated shoulder.Great. Heath may be back, but if this pre-season is any guide, the old Heath we have come to know and love seems to be missing in action.

    Where’s the redzone offense? If you really want a barometer as to how this season will go, watch how successful the Steelers are at scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line.

    Suisham and Wing have both been iffy. I can’t even bear to talk about the situation at quarterback. If Ben goes down… well, I guess I’ll have to become a hockey fan this winter.

    All in all, if you can explain to me how this team has more than 7-9 wins in it, I’ll be happy to listen, but remain hard to convince.

    • EasyLikeSundayMorning

      Over the last 8 games of 2013, the Steelers were 6-2. The 6 wins were all by at least 7 points. The 2 losses were by 2 to the Ravens and by Antonio Brown’s toe to the Dolphins. The offense started to click with Bell, the no huddle and OL stability leading to 28+ points per game and Ben only being sacked 11 times (and 7 in the last 7 games).

      Since the season ended, we’ve lost Woodley, Clark, Ziggy, Dwyer, Sanders and Cotchery and added Pouncey, Blount, Shazier, Tuitt, Thomas, Mitchell, Moats and Moore which seems at least a wash or an improvement.

      For now, I think the last 8 regular season games are more representative of this team than the 4 preseason games. Fortunately the offseason is almost over and we’ll find out soon…

      • Randy Steele

        Easy,

        I hear you. You’re correct, and I respect you a lot. But whenever anyone brings up this argument, I always want to ask, “Why do only the last eight games from last year count?” I thought it was a 16-game season.

        Believe me, I want you to be right, but after the last two years of 8-8 seasons, I remain stubbornly skeptical.

        On the upside, the Steelers’ schedule is remarkably easy. But I don’t take any solace in that. The first time they will meet a good quarterback with a decent running back, receivers, and a solid line, they will get shredded.

        It pains me to think this, but I can’t see them winning an important game with this team. I hope I’m wrong.

        • EasyLikeSundayMorning

          Randy, the respect is mutual. You always write something smart, avoid excessive hyperbole and aren’t a homer. After two 8-8 seasons, the Steelers have to prove it on the field. As you say, the schedule should help. The only good teams from last year that they play outside of the division are the Panthers, Colts and Saints; the latter two are at home and the Panthers are after 9 days off.

          My biggest concern is that the youth in the front 7, while very talented, will likely take time to develop. In any case, I’m not really expecting a deep playoff run this year unless everything falls into place. But 10 wins and the division seem doable. But I’m pretty optimistic about 2015.

          • Eric

            Randy, Easy,

            I think there is a good reason to expect that the last 8 games are more likely to be a better indicator of future performance based upon the state of the offensive line. In week 1 the starters from left to right were Adams, Foster, Pouncey, DeCastro, Gilbert. Pouncey was lost in the first game, DeCastro was a rookie and Adams was replaced by week 6 due to ineffectiveness. The unsettled play along the line led to a lot of pressure on Roethlisberger, who was sacked frequently and directly led to many turnovers.

            By the 2nd half of the season, the line had stabilized with Beachum at LT, DeCastro maturing and Velasco integrating into the line. Given that research at Football Outsiders has shown that offensive line continuity is one of the best predictors for offense, I am optimistic that the Steelers offense will more like the last 8 games than the first.

            That is also ignoring the positive impact of having Mike Munchack as the offensive line coach and the continued maturation (on the field, on the field!) of L. Bell. So I think the offense will have to carry the load for this years team.

            What is much less clear to me as what we will see from the defense. I wouldn’t be surprised if the defenses performance is similar to last years offense, with struggles in the first half of the season as Tuitt/Shazier/Mitchell adapt. Whether the defense improves in the final 8 games will likely tell the tale of this years Steelers.

  • drinkingclub

    I could see a 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7 season, none of those would surprise me. I am hoping the ball bounces the right way and its 10-6. We shall see.

  • Rob D

    I’m in a quandary..I like many of the young and youngish players on this team and think they are worthy Steelers. The vets are still very good to great- Troy, Ben, in particular. But trying to predict when and if they will come together as defensive, offensive and ST UNITS..is very difficult. If they have another slow start working out the kinks, they could be in a dogfight with Cincy for the title. WE have the better QB and also I’d give STeelers the edge in DC but that’s about it. They are younger and more talented overall. That’s why I think a fast start is essential..get a bit of a drop on the BEngals and force them to play catchup for the entire year. 10 wins gets this division..I think, right now, the Steelers look like a 7 or 8 win team. Should be very interesting…

    • Randy Steele

      By half-time yesterday, I thought I was going to be eating a big pile of steaming crow on a croissant for my persistent negativism this year about this team’s defense. Believe me, I don’t like being that guy. But I really must wonder if some of these players just lack football smarts.

      As everyone in the world saw yesterday, our D was completely and absolutely cumfuttered when facing a hurry-up offense, even one with as many questionable parts as the Browns had on the field. Brett Keisel admitted after the game that it had gotten so confusing on the line that at one point he found himself lined up as a nose tackle.

      That said, I’m going to hope these players can figure it out. Either that, or Ben and his offense can consistently put up more than 30 points a game.