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.