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2014 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Backup(s): Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones

Starting QB: Ben Roethlisberger had a down year in his first season playing in the Todd Haley offense. Haley came over from the Chiefs to replace Bruce Arians as the Steelers offensive coordinator. His system isn't as aggressive as Arians and is built on the short passing game. Roethlisberger finished the season as the 21st best fantasy quarterback after missing two and a half games due to injury. He tossed only eight interceptions in 2012, but many came at crucial times. Six came in defeats, four in the fourth quarter or overtime. There are many doubts around the Steelers offense as they enter the second year under Haley. The offensive line needs to do a better job of protecting Roethlisberger as the injuries over his career are compiling and taking their toll. Roethlisberger and Haley need to get on the same page and establish the same level of trust the veteran quarterback had with Arians. There are some who speculate that Roethlisberger wasn't happy with the playcalling and was frustrated because he wasn't allowed to run the no huddle more often. The Steelers lost Mike Wallace (Dolphins) in free agency so if Roethlisberger wants to have a bounce back season then he'll have to do it without one of his favorite targets. On June 5th Roethlisberger had minor knee surgery to alleviate some discomfort. He should be fully healthy by the time training camp starts.

Backup QB: Bruce Gradkowski signed as a free agent earlier this offseason. The veteran comes over from the Bengals and gives the team quality depth behind Roethlisberger. The Pittsburgh native is a savvy quarterback who knows how to keep plays alive with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield. With Roethlisberger's injury history there's a good chance that we'll see Gradkowski in the starting lineup at some point this season. He lacks the rocket arm of Roethlisberger but his skill set is a good match for the Haley system. In the fourth-round of the 2013 NFL draft the Steelers selected Landry Jones out of Oklahoma. Jones finished his career at Oklahoma as the Big 12's all-time leading passer, compiling 16,646 passing yards. He's got good arm strength, can throw with proper velocity and touch, plus he does a good job recognizing coverage during his pre-snap read. Jones is a developmental prospect who needs to refine his arm mechanics and footwork. He also needs to improve his decision making under pressure.

Running Backs

Starter: Isaac Redman
Backup(s): LaRod Stephens-Howling, Felix Jones, Baron Batch, Curtis McNeal, Le'Veon Bell (injured)
Fullback(s): David Johnson, Will Johnson

Starting RB: The Steelers may have lost rookie Le'Veon Bell for a large chunk of the season due to what some think is a Lisfranc (foot) injury. With him out of the lineup for a minimum of 4-6 weeks we should see a RBBC led by Isaac Redman. The veteran is a good reserve player but struggled with a bigger role last year. He knows the system and can be relied on as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. Redman could be counted on as the hammer that can grind down defenses late in games.

Backup RBs: Stephens-Howling is a change of pace back who can fill in as a spot starter (and workhorse back) if need be. He changes direction with great balance and does a good job of getting skinny to pick up yards inside. The Steelers added Felix Jones in a trade during this preseason with the Philadelphia Eagles. He'll be a return man and help out in the RBBC while Bell is banged up. Batch was a seventh-round pick by the Steelers in 2011 but missed his rookie season due to a torn ACL. Last season he had 25 carries on the year and scored a rushing touchdown against the Titans. Batch was released in November, but added to the team's practice squad the very next day. The try hard change of pace back is no lock to make the final roster. McNeal was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He's a scat back who could reminds some in the scouting community of a poor man's Darren Sproles.

Fullback: Will Johnson is a versatile player who can contribute as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield for the Steelers. He caught 15 passes last season with one touchdown and will once again have limited targets and touches. With Bell being such a good receiver we could see Johnson's targets evaporate.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders
Backups: Markus Wheaton, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress, Justin Brown, David Gilreath, Derek Moye, Kashif Moore, Reggie Dunn, J.D. Woods

Starting WRs: The Steelers passing game is going to have a different look this year after losing Mike Wallace (Dolphins) in free agency. Antonio Brown is Roethlisberger's most trusted wide receiver and should receive a majority of the targets in 2013. The veteran has sure hands and is known to make the critical catch. Roethlisberger could rely on Brown more than ever and the Steelers should design better and different ways to get him open on underneath routes. Emmanuel Sanders will fill the shoes left by Wallace and can be a vertical target for the offense. The Steelers decided to match the one-year, $2.5 million tender offer Sanders signed with the New England Patriots as a Restricted Free Agent. We could see the team work towards a long-term extension if Sanders can impress this year. Durability is a concern with Sanders as he's been bothered by foot problems during the course of his career. He was targeted 75 times in 2012 and could see that number jump to over 100 in 2013 because of his expanding role.

Backup WRs: In the third-round of the 2013 NFL draft the Steelers added Markus Wheaton out of Oregon State. This move could pay off in a big way for the team. Wheaton is a talented target with good body control, incredible speed, and sure hands. He'll be able to stretch the field vertically and give Roethlisberger that downfield threat to back off defenses. Wheaton has good ball tracking ability and can create separation off the line of scrimmage because of his elite acceleration. Jerricho Cotchery is a savvy veteran who does all the little things to succeed. He comes back to the football, has strong hands, and squares his shoulders to the line of scrimmage. At this point in his career he's nothing more than veteran depth but he's an important player who can help mentor this young group of receivers. Plaxico Burress is not the same player he used to be. He can still help the Steelers as a big red zone threat but his role after that should be limited. Derek Moye is a speedy receiver who could help out on special teams as a return man if he makes the final roster.

Tight Ends

Starters: Heath Miller
Backups: David Paulsen, Jamie McCoy, Zack Pinalto, Matt Spaeth (injured)

Heath Miller is one of the best in the game when healthy. The seasoned veteran finished 2012 as the 4th best tight end in fantasy football. He compiled 71 catches, 816 yards, and eight touchdowns last year and should once again be the most reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger. Miller went down with a knee injury in week 16 last year but has been recovering well this offseason. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Miller is on schedule in his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. His status for week one is up in the air right now. David Paulsen was a seventh-round pick by the Steelers in the 2013 NFL draft. He's a quick player with good short area range. Paulsen is not known as a blocker and is merely a developmental prospect. Matt Spaeth returns to the Steelers after playing for the Bears over the last two seasons. He's a reliable target who can make sneaky plays in the red zone. He was injured (foot) earlier in training camp. The Steelers could consider placing Spaeth on the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list but may want to keep that option open for another player.

Place Kicker

Shaun Suisham: All three returning specialists faced competition this year. Kicker Shaun Suisham's job was probably the most secure. Danny Hrapmann, who fared well enough last summer to be re-signed for this summer, was released on August 16th. Drew Butler faced an older challenger at punter/holder in veteran Brian Moorman, who was signed in late April. Although Butler won that battle, he ultimately lost when the Steelers grabbed former Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko at the end of preseason. Long snapper Greg Warren held off a younger challenger in Luke Ingram (Hawaii), an undrafted rookie who was generally rated at the top of this year's class. After a stray top five appearance in 2010, the Steelers ranked 18th in attempted kicking points in 2011 and 19th in 2012.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer, Markus Wheaton [R], Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown

Running back Chris Rainey handled all kickoff returns in 2012, but he was arrested early this offseason for battery, and the Steelers quickly released him. Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling's injury has made a mess of the situation. Rookie Markus Wheaton has seen returns before Felix Jones, though the latter is listed higher on the depth chart. Receiver Antonio Brown has handled returns in the past. Emmanuel Sanders was the front-runner for the job in preseason but is still in the mix. Running back Jonathan Dwyer also has seen opportunities during the season.

Punt Returners: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton [R]

Receiver Antonio Brown has seen his kickoff return duties eliminated as his offensive role has grown, but the Steelers seem content to allow him to continue returning punts, which should serve as a major value boost in leagues that reward return yardage. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders served as Brown's top backup last year, but with Sanders seeing his role expand on offense and in the kickoff return game, Pittsburgh has opted to remove him from punt returns, promoting receiver Markus Wheaton to the backup position instead.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Mike Adams, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert
Key Backups: T Joe Long, T Kelvin Beachum, G John Malecki, G Justin Cheadle

The Pittsburgh Steelers invested heavily in the offensive line last offseason, spending their first and second round picks to improve the troubled unit. But as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. At one point or another, every Steelers starter missed time with injury. Left tackle Marcus Gilbert is a solid starter who has the athleticism to protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side. Gilbert needs to improve his consistency to be considered among the league's better left tackles. Left guard Ramon Foster was a key substitute and recently signed a long-term contract to remain with the team. Foster actually has experience playing tackle in an emergency, but is better suited for guard. Maurkice Pouncey continued to perform at an All-Pro level and is one of the best centers in the game at this point. Former first round pick David DeCastro was sidelined for most of the season with a leg injury, but he did return and do a serviceable job at right guard through the last few games of the season. Mike Adams was given a trial by fire at left tackle last season, but is probably more suited to the right side, where he can lean in and employ his run blocking abilities. Swing tackle Kelvin Beachum also received seasoning as the multiple injuries forced him into several games last year. Guy Whimper recently signed and will fight Beachum for a depth role. The good news for this unit is that all of these starters are twenty-seven years old and under, and all except for Foster were either first or second round picks. This unit could really gel and rise in the rankings, as long as they avoid catastrophic scenarios such as everyone being injured, like last season.

Team Defense

If it seems like the Steelers defense is always good, it's because the Steelers defense is always good. Defensive coordinator - and zone blitz creator - Dick LeBeau might be 113 years old, but he has shown no signs of aging in his ability to lead a defense. And he always seems to be able to replace lost free agents. While most teams would struggle to replace linebacker James Harrison, the Steelers drafted Jarvis Jones and will march on. As long as LeBeau is leading the way, this defense is an excellent fantasy option.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Steve McClendon, DE Cameron Heyward, DE/NT Cam Thomas
Backups: DE Nick Williams, DE Stephon Tuitt, NT Loni Fangupo, DE Brian Arnfelt, NT Daniel McCullers

Starting DL: The Steelers have never been shy about investing early draft picks in their front three. That approach has paid off for them over time. Pittsburgh defensive linemen rarely post impressive numbers. In fact the entire DL unit accounted for only 14 sacks in 2013 and that is an unusually high number for this defense. The design of the zone blitz scheme requires the front three to hold the line of scrimmage and eat up blockers so that the linebackers are free to make plays. This demands a very specific skill set. Big bodies with the strength to hold ground against double teams is the first requirement. In Steve McClendon, Cameron Heyward and Cam Thomas, the team has three players who fit their template perfectly.

Backup DL: Many analysts have pointed to the Steelers defense as an aging unit. With the expected retirement of Brett Keisel, the drafting of Stephon Tuitt in the second round and nose tackle Daniel McCullers in the sixth, the club has gotten much younger up front. Tuitt fits the Steelers mold and brings a dose of athleticism to the unit. He should have a role immediately and could push Cam Thomas for a starting job right away. The Steelers have a long history of successfully developing late round pick. McCullers is one of those developmental guys with long term upside. If there is a looming problem for the Steelers, it may be a lack of depth up front. Behind the top four the team has nothing more than a handful of undrafted free agents and/or developmental guys with little or no NFL experience.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Lawrence Timmons, ILB Ryan Shazier, OLB Jarvis Jones, OLB Jason Worilds
Backups: ILB Sean Spence, OLB Chris Carter, ILB Jordan Zumwalt, ILB/OLB Arthur Moats, ILB Vince Williams

Starting LBs: The Steelers started a youth movement on defense last year With the drafting of OLB Jarvis Jones in the first round. That trend continues in 2014 with the addition of Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier in round one. Shazier played outside in a 4-3 scheme in college, but is expected to move inside in the Steeler 3-4. His combination of great speed, athleticism and natural ability make him a great fit alongside Lawrence Timmons. Both players have excellent blitz/pass rush skills, speed and big play ability. This may become the most athletic and productive ILB tandem the Steelers have had since the Steel Curtain. At outside linebacker there are some questions to be answered. LaMarr Woodley fell out of grace with the team last season and was allowed to leave via free agency. That leaves Jason Worilds as one starter with Jarvis Jones likely stepping into the lineup opposite him. Worilds spent three years as a backup before stepping into a starting role in week six last season. He finished the year with a strong 9 sacks in the final twelve games and proved to the coaching staff that he is ready. Jones recorded just one sack as a rookie but did a lot of things that made the coaching staff believe he could get the job done in his second season. He will be under a lot of pressure to produce and could be pushed by fourth year pro Chris Carter.

Backup LBs: The coaching staff had high expectations for 2012 third round pick Sean Spence, but a serious injury early in his rookie season derailed his career. He missed all of last year and there is concern that Spence may not be ready to play until late in 2014 if at all. He is expected to open camp on the PUP list and may remain there into the regular season. Vince Williams was the team's sixth round pick last season. He saw a lot of action as a rookie, finishing the season with 40 solo tackles. The Steelers added veteran free agent Arthur Moats to compete with Williams for the third ILB job. While they have solid depth on the inside, the Steelers have some questions at outside linebacker. Coach speak has Chris Carter in the mix for playing time on the outside but the first three years of his career have amounted to only 10 tackles with no sacks. That provides little reason for optimism. Moats is listed as an inside backer but is likely to see work as a backup on the outside as well. Rookie sixth round pick Jordan Zumwalt could also be moved outside in a developmental situation. The bottom line here is that the Steelers could absorb an injury on the inside but if one of their outside guys goes down it could be a problem.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Troy Polamalu, S Shamarko Thomas, S Michael Mitchell, CB Ike Taylor, CB Cortez Allen, CB William Gay
Backups: S Robert Golden, S Will Allen CB Isaiah Green, CB Antwon Blake, CB Ross Ventrone

Starting DBs: Corners Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay produced only three interceptions between them in 2013. This however, is not a direct reflection on the quality of their play. By design the Steelers zone blitz scheme requires that its defensive backs play man to man most of the time. Their philosophy is to have the front seven get quick pressure on the passer so the secondary only has to cover for a short time. Defensive backs are coached to play it safe and not allow big plays. Thus it is by design that these players do not take risks by going for the big play. In this scheme it is the safeties, and most often the strong safety who is free to gamble on big plays. The scheme and the ability of Ryan Clark to play center field, has helped Troy Polamalu to become one of the best big play safeties in the history of the game. Clark is gone and Polamalu turned 33 in April. 2014 fourth round pick Shamarko Thomas has shown a great deal of promise and is expected to have a big role in 2014. It is widely anticipated that he will eventually be the replacement for Polamalu. This season however, Thomas is expected to compete with free agent addition Michael Mitchell for the starting free safety job. The loser of that competition may well become the nickel back.

Backup DBs: The Steelers have three corners and three safeties that are all likely to see significant action, so they have pretty solid depth across the secondary in general. In Will Allen and Ross Ventrone the team has a couple of veterans to fall back on just in case they were to be hammered by injuries. They also have Isaiah Green, Antwon Blake and Robert Golden who will be competing for roster spots. Those guys will need to contribute on special teams if they are to make the final roster.

Last modified: 2014-05-12 17:25:15