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2014 Team Report: Pittsburgh Steelers

Quarterbacks

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

Starting QB: In 2013, Ben Roethlisberger improved his production in year two of the Todd Haley offense. He finished the season as the 8th-best fantasy quarterback in 2013 after finishing as the 21st ranked quarterback the season before. The fact that he played a full 16-game schedule helped him get back into the top 10. Roethliberger’s numbers were fairly similar, 7.3 yards per attempt both years, 25 touchdowns in 2012 compared to 28 touchdowns in 2013, and 63.3 percent completion in 2012 compared to 64.2 percent in 2013. The largest difference in his numbers came from his interception total. Roethlisberger threw 14 interceptions in 2013 compared to only eight interceptions in 2012. The main reason for more turnovers from the veteran quarterback comes down to risk aversion. Roethlisberger was trying to make too much happen in certain games, and he would force the ball into coverage because of that. Coming into 2014 the Steelers will have a new look in the passing game. Gone in free agency, Emmanuel Sanders will now be replaced in the lineup by second-year pro Markus Wheaton. Behind him guys like veteran Lance Moore and rookie Martavis Bryant will compete for playing time as the third receiver. Antonio Brown and Heath Miller will be the only holdover targets that Roethlisberger has plenty of chemistry with. The Todd Haley offense is somewhat boring and predictable, and this makes Roethlisberger’s numbers somewhat predictable as well. So long as he stays healthy, he should finish as a top-12 fantasy quarterback in 2014.

Backup QB: Veteran Bruce Gradkowski will once again be the primary backup behind Roethlisberger. If he’s pressed into duty, Gradkowski should be able to hold his own as a part-time starter. Gradkowski is an athletic quarterback who can keep plays alive with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield. He doesn’t have a strong arm like Roethlisberger, but Gradkowski is savvy and can make most throws required in the NFL. His somewhat limited skill set wouldn’t hinder him that much in this offensive system. Second-year pro Landry Jones could push Gradkowski for the backup job. He’s got the ability to diagnose coverage quickly, and Jones can throw with proper velocity when given time in the pocket. However, his mechanics and footwork still need work when he’s under duress. If he can prove that he has more mettle when pressured, Jones could win the backup job. Jones has the upside to be a quarterback of the future in Pittsburgh, but he still has a lot of work to do in order to refine his game.

Running Backs

Starter: Le'Veon Bell
Backup(s): LeGarrette Blount, Tauren Poole, Miguel Maysonet
Fullback(s): Will Johnson

Starting RB: It looks as though the Steelers found themselves a star in second-year running back Le’Veon Bell. He shook off an early season injury that caused him to miss the first three games of the year to become the 15th-best running back in fantasy football. Bell rushed 244 times for 860 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and eight rushing touchdowns. He showed good strength between the tackles, but Bell also showed athleticism at the second level of the defense and in the open field. He proved to be a workhorse for the Steelers, only having two games with less than 16 carries. The rookie immediately showed a nose for the end zone with two touchdowns in his pro debut. Bell is a big back (6’2” 230 pounds) but he can find small holes to punch it in near paydirt. Arguably Bell’s best attribute is his receiving ability. In 2013, Bell was targeted 66 times caught 45 passes for 399 yards. He has soft hands and the athleticism to get open against linebackers on screen passes and swing routes. This year we could see an even larger role for Bell. Provided he stays healthy, Bell could break into the top 10 of fantasy running backs. This makes him an option to be a late first- or early second-round fantasy pick in most standard leagues. His value is bumped up in PPR leagues because of his receiving ability. Bell's possible punishment for an August 20 arrest on marijuana possession and DUI charges now hangs over his season, and the backup Blount was also arrested for marijuana possession. The outcome of possible punishments for either player is currently unknown.

Backup RBs: Behind Bell the Steelers got some veteran insurance by adding LeGarrette Blount in free agency. The former Patriots and Buccaneers back worked as a battering ram in New Enlgand last year. Blount finished the season with 153 carries for 772 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He’s not much of a receiver out of the backfield, having fewer targets (38) in his four-year career than Bell did (66) as a rookie. If Bell is banged up, the Steelers won’t miss a beat on the ground by plugging in Blount. Behind Blount the team has a collection of intriguing change-of-pace backs. Tauren Poole, Miguel Maysonet and Alvester Alexander were all undrafted when they came into the league. However, just because they weren’t picked in the draft doesn’t mean they can’t play or contribute at the pro level. Poole is a smaller back who runs with toughness between the tackles. He will run inside, but he has enough speed to make the edge at the second level. Maysonet plays like a poor man’s version of Maurice Jones-Drew. He’s built low to the ground, can change direction on a dime and he has good initial burst. Alexander may be the best all-around back of these three. He’s good on special teams and works well as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.

Fullback: Will Johnson is a versatile player who can contribute as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield for the Steelers. He can line up at fullback, tight end or H-Back on offense, and he's a valuable blocker in front of Bell. Because Bell is such a fine receiver out of the backfield, the targets will be few and far between for Johnson. We would be shocked if Johnson saw double-digit catches in 2014.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton
Backups: Martavis Bryant, Lance Moore, Dri Archer, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Brown, Danny Coale, Jasper Collins, Kashif Moore, Derek Moye, Lanear Sampson

Starting WRs: The Steelers’ passing game is going to have a different look (again) this year after losing Emmanuel Sanders (Broncos) in free agency. His speed and playmaking ability will be missed, and it will be interesting to see how effective the Steelers are at replacing the veteran wideout. We’ll once again see Antonio Brown be the favorite target for Roethlisberger. He can work well on underneath routes, but Brown also has the wheels to play deep. Brown was an absolute stud last year, and he finished the season as the 7th-best fantasy wide receiver. He was targeted 166 times, caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns. In addition to his five, 100-yard games, Brown was also one of the most consistent receivers in the league last year. Brown never had a game with fewer than five receptions. It may be difficult for Brown to duplicate those numbers, but he could get close. This makes him a low-end WR1 who can be a consistent starter for your fantasy team every week. Taking over for Sanders will be second-year pro Markus Wheaton. He’s one of our favorite young receivers in the league because of his speed and athleticism combination. Wheaton only caught six passes for 64 yards as a rookie. Expect him to put up much larger numbers this year. Wheaton has the ability to track deep passes, and he has the speed to get on top of the defense in a hurry. This makes him an immediate impact player as a deep target. Unfortunately for Wheaton (and Steelers fans), Todd Haley’s offense doesn’t press the ball downfield that often. Wheaton will have to prove himself as a route-runner on underneath routes if he wants to play up to his potential this year.

Backup WRs: Behind Brown and Wheaton the Steelers have an interesting mix of youth and experience. Veteran Lance Moore could end up winning the slot position in 2014. He was picked up in free agency from the Saints, and Moore has the skill set to work well as a quick-twitch receiver on underneath routes. He has to stay healthy in order to make an impact with the Steelers this year. Rookie Martavis Bryant will be in the mix to start opposite Antonio Brown. Bryant is a huge target, measuring in at 6’4” 215 pounds. This makes him an instant option when the team hits the red zone. Bryant has a huge catch radius and can play “above the rim” as a pro. He does a good job of using his long arms to consistently snare passes away from his body. Even though he’s got good size, Bryant can be pushed around by more physical corners. In addition to Moore, the Steelers also added Darrius Heyward-Bey in free agency. He has an outstanding size/speed combination, but Heyward-Bey has never played up to his potential as a pro. Problems with concentration, drops and consistency have held the veteran back. We don’t think he’ll all of a sudden “get it” now that he’s with the Steelers. Derek Moye is a skinny target who can work on special teams as a return man. Danny Coale needs to stay healthy, but he’s got good quickness on shorter routes. Jasper Collins is a poor man’s version of Cecil Shorts with little upside as a pro. None of these three are that exciting as dynasty prospects.

Tight Ends

Starters: Heath Miller
Backups: Matt Spaeth, David Paulson, Michael Palmer, Rob Branchflower, Eric Waters

Heath Miller is still one of the most valuable players on this offense, but he’s struggled to stay healthy and is not quite the player he used to be. He finished the 2013 season as the 24th-best tight end in fantasy football. Even though he only missed one more game than he did in 2012, Miller fell 20 spots last year due to a lack of production. He hasn’t played a full 16-game season over the last two years, and he spent so much time last year as a blocker that his production as a receiver suffered. The Steelers have tried (once again) to upgrade the offensive line, but if Miller has to stay in and block it will hold his production back this year as well. Miller’s best seasons as a pro have come when he gets around 100 targets and catches six or more touchdowns. Last year, Miller was targeted only 78 times and had one receiving touchdown. These low numbers for Miller also coincide with Ben Roethlisberger having a better statistical season. That means Miller is blocking, and he’s being somewhat phased out of the offense. We’ll see if the team puts greater emphasis on getting Miller the ball in 2014. Behind Miller, the Steelers don’t have any players who could be impact fantasy players. Matt Spaeth is a blocking tight end who has struggled to stay healthy in recent years. David Paulson was a seventh-round pick in 2012 who has soft hands but lacks athleticism to be much of a threat in the seam. Rob Branchflower is a big rookie who can contribute as a blocker and as a short-area receiver because of his size and wingspan.

Place Kicker

Shaun Suisham: Kicker Shaun Suisham has now topped 90% on field goals two straight years. Last year he hit 30 of 32 (93.8%). Once again he’ll be working with a new holder as the punting job is up for grabs. Competing for the job are free agent acquisitions Adam Podlesh and Brad Wing. Long snapper Greg Warren was resigned in the offseason. He’s joined in camp by Bryce Davis. After a stray top five appearance in 2010, the Steelers ranked 18th in attempted kicking points in 2011, 19th in 2012, and 14th in 2013.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Markus Wheaton, Dri Archer

The Steelers return game was solid overall in 2014. Markus Wheaton was a middle of the road kick returner by NFL standards, ranking 15th in yards per return. Dri Archer underperformed expectations for him, but with a year's experience under his belt the pair will likely handle most of the kickoffs for the Steelers again in 2015.

Punt Returners: Antonio Brown, Dri Archer, Markus Wheaton

Receiver Antonio Brown had another top ten season as a punt returner, maintaining a 10.6 yard average and taking one return the distance for a touchdown. The coaching staff has so far shown no inclination to keep their star receiver away from the extra workload of the return game, so Brown looks like a good get to see the added punt return yards again in 2015. Dri Archer and Markus Wheaton would be likely options to fill in for Brown if needed.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Kelvin Beachum, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David Decastro, RT Marcus Gilbert
Key Backups: T Mike Adams, T Guy Whimper, C Cody Wallace, G Wesley Johnson [R]

The Steelers’ line grade out as a mid-tier unit, which is a huge upgrade from where they finished last season. The biggest reason for this upgrade is the return of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL and MCL. Pouncey is reportedly on target in his rehabilitation and is the team really can use his leadership on the field. . Right guard David Decastro is the probably the next best player, as he played at a high level last season. Decastro is a dominant run blocker that didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but this was an obvious snub. At the other guard spot, Ramon Foster is a versatile player who is mostly solid. Foster could face competition from fifth round pick Wesley Johnson out of Vanderbilt. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum won the job from former second round pick Mike Adams about a quarter of the way through last season and could compete with Adams again this preseason. Adams could also compete with Marcus Gilbert at right tackle, where Adams is more a natural fit. Neither tackle starter is a special player, but both are decent and should hold off the competition. Guy Whimper is a new addition and could make the team as a depth player, along with last year’s backup center Cody Wallace. One other addition that needs to be mentioned is new offensive line coach Mike Munshak. Munchak, who was the Titans’ head coach last year, is a Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman who should provide top level instruction to this unit. Overall the Steelers line is a solid group, with upside to improve should the tackles improve and Pouncey regains his pre-injury form.

Team Defense

This stout defensive front is built on a wall of defensive linemen that set things up beautifully for their playmaking linebackers. The Steelers rebuild on defense took another step this offseason with the addition of Ryan Shazier. Shazier, Timmons, and Jarvis Jones should wreak havoc behind the line of scrimmage. They're backed up by a solid group of veteran corners and safeties. Polamalu may be close to the end but he's still good in run support and the corners know their role. If Shazier lives up to expectations and Jones continues to develops, this could be one the best defenses Tomlin has put on the field. Their should be plenty of big plays to go around if this secondary can stay healthy and productive.

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. 2013 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: 2015-05-10 20:30:44