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Aug. 07, 2013 - Shasky Clarke

2013 NFL Team Previews, AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers - 3rd

2013 NFL Team Previews, AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers - 3rd





Ten years into his career, Ben Roethlisberger is still a somewhat underrated quarterback. Nobody has done more with less pass protection, an inconsistent run game and without a star number one pass catcher. He has always had an excellent, accurate arm as well as the ability to keep the whole field open, extending plays in the pocket. But Roethlisberger is also super efficient, protecting the ball. He is extremely tough, as he stands in versus pressure, but that leads to him missing several games due to injury. Facing worries about the wide receiver position and the offensive line, this year does not figure to get much easier for the quarterback. Expect, however, an efficient and high upside passing attack once again. Behind him, Bruce Gradkowski can work the short and intermediate game in a backup role while experienced rookie Landry Jones has all the ability to eventually start as a franchise quarterback in the NFL.



While Pittsburgh's backfield lacks a box office-ready talent or persona, the Steelers may surprise some with their effectiveness as a group here. The offense will be rolling out new outside zone blocking schemes in 2013 and it feels good about rookie Le'Veon Bell being the type of back to succeed in it. There is an outside chance Bell could be the kind of breakout back that Alfred Morris was in Washington. Fifth-year player Isaac Redman has also cut weight, dropping twenty pounds off his 230-pound frame, feeling more nimble and explosive. Reportedly Jonathan Dwyer is at his highest level of conditioning in years. These three bring a high amount of downhill power. The interesting guy to watch here is new signee LaRod Stephens-Howling, a diminutive, super quick pass catcher and return-man.



The Steelers' receiving corps did not improve by losing Mike Wallace, arguably the most dangerous vertical threat in the game. But the Steelers may be better at the spot in the long term. For now, though, the group lacks a true number one matchup nightmare. The top two receivers, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are 5'11” and 5'10” respectively. The two are quick and elusive open field runners. Sanders is the high upside option, possessing true field stretching ability with 4.4 speed. Nonetheless he has never caught more than 44 passes. Brown has been a high volume target, getting great separation with his smoothness and route running. Rounding out the group are reliable veteran Jerricho Cotchery and massive, plodding Plaxico Burress. The guy to watch is Oregon State rookie Markus Wheaton, a smooth, polished Mike Wallace-like field stretcher.



The tight end position is problematic. Highly productive thirty year old Heath Miller was Roethlisberger's most reliable and consistent target in the short and intermediate area. Unfortunately, Miller tore his ACL, MCL and PCL late in the year and is still working to get back. There is a chance he goes on the reserve/PUP list, costing him the first six games of the regular season. There is not a whole lot of talent behind Miller. Matt Spaeth and David Paulson are vying for playing time during Miller's absence. 6'7” Spaeth has more natural ability but was utterly unproductive in Chicago.


Offensive Line:

Count on the Steelers offensive line to be much-maligned. As bad as this group has been in recent years, the Steelers' pass protection this year could be the worst. Neither Marcus Gilbert, though fifteen pounds later, nor Mike Adams, the projected left and right tackles, respectively, have the athleticism to consistently protect against the cast of pass rushers they will face in the AFC. Guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro are better suited to be phone booth, power run blockers. The lone star is Maurkice Pouncey, one of the best pure centers in football. The hope is that the new zone run blocking schemes will lead to a more productive and explosive running game and open up some play action and misdirection opportunities, masking some of the one-on-one pass blocking weaknesses.



Best Offensive Rookie: RB Le'Veon Bell

Best Offensive Second-Year Player: G David DeCastro

2014 Draft Offensive Position of Need: Left Tackle

2014 Draft Offensive Suggestion: OT Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama




Defensive Line:

The secret to the defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the Steelers' perennially elite defense over the past decade? The front three. The group is a lot of the reason the defense has been a dominant run stopping unit. Twelfth-year, prototypical 3-4 end Brett Keisel has been a model of consistency, demonstrating a mix of stoutness, technique and athleticism that has allowed this group to replace the other faces on the line over the years. Ziggy Hood has grown into his own as a terrific athlete for his size. Replacing long time nose tackle Casey Hampton is fifth-year Steve McClendon, a guy who has consistently flashed as a sub over the past few years. 6'5” 310-pound rookie Nick Williams could eventually be a candidate to start as a unique, explosive end. The guy to watch is third-year long, athletic end Cameron Heyward, who has dropped twenty pounds to get back to 295, his college weight.



Gone is James Harrison. LaMarr Woodley only had four sacks last year, a season marred by injuries. Regardless, the Steelers still had an elite defense. This group will almost certainly perform better, with a fresh, star-talented Woodley in top physical shape. Harrison's replacement is elite athlete Jason Worilds. He may never be a 15-sack rusher, but he does not have to be. The team feels like they are grooming that guy in rookie Jarvis Jones, one of the most statistically stunning rushers in SEC history. He still needs to eliminate mental mistakes but it will be interesting to see if he has the athleticism to be the stud he was collegiately.



The Steelers have thrived on the continuity they have established at the inside linebacker position. Lawrence Timmons is one of the NFL's top five non-rushing linebackers, displaying elite athleticism, cover skills and hitting ability. 12th year Larry Foote has never been a great athlete but knows LeBeau's scheme inside and out and remains a sound tackler. The team favors speed behind these starters and Sean Spence, Stevenson Sylvester and Brian Rolle are good, albeit undersized, players with excellent athleticism.



Pittsburgh successfully puts a lot of pressure on its secondary, a big deal given the number of injuries and turnover the group has seen over the past few years. The core – 11th year CB Ike Taylor, 12th year free safety Ryan Clark, and 11th year Troy Polamalu remain, and make up one of the most experienced and effective groups in NFL history. Taylor is big, physical, confident and fast enough to run with most number one receivers. Opposite him, with Keenan Lewis gone, Cortez Allen is expected to start outside but is recovering from a recent knee procedure. Allen is a long, explosive, sudden athlete, well suited to be decent within the system. Replacing Allen for the time being will be either oft-burned veteran William Gay or explosive, quick twitch Curtis Brown.



At safety, while Polamalu has suffered injury woes in two of the last four years, when healthy he is the most versatile playmaker at his position. He is the lone true turnover creator in the secondary, and it has been well documented that his presence and production impacts the team's win-loss record. Meanwhile, Ryan Clark is an aggressive, physical tone-setter who has made 200 tackles in the past couple years. Adding more depth is physical, fast rookie Shamarko Thomas. Thomas may see immediate starting time in sub-packages, especially if Cortez Allen is out.



Best Defensive Rookie: DL Nick Williams

Best Defensive Second-Year Player: ILB Sean Spence

2014 Draft Defensive Position of Need: Free Safety

2014 Draft Defensive Suggestion: S Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State