The Steelers and the playoff push

After what one might almost call a classic Pittsburgh Steelers win last weekend over the Detroit Lions, we now find ourselves tied for second in the AFC North and only a game out of the AFC wild card spot.

The 0-4 start to the season, which included a narrow loss to the Tennessee Titans alongside slightly less-narrow defeats to the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings before two “thrilling” (read: narrow) wins over the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens (which marked my own first ever game at Heinz Field).  The 2-4 record was clearly a lot better than 0-4, but the gaping holes across the squad were becoming all-too evident.

The seemingly annual baffling loss to the Oakland Raiders, compounded by giving up an NFL record touchdown mere seconds into the game to Terrelle Pryor was followed by a resounding hammering from New England.

At that point I, along with I suspect many other Steelers fans, was ready to throw in the towel.  “Mail in the rest of the season, get out young players some game experience and prepare for the draft and free agency to put us in a strong position for 2014” was my own view on the way forward for the team.  Then we went and won two in a row against Buffalo and Detroit and things started to look a bit rosier.

Suddenly, planning for next season took a backseat to “wait a second, we could actually make the playoffs here!”

Our remaining games are at the Browns, at the Ravens, the Dolphins, the Bengals, at the Packers and the Browns again, this time at Heinz.

The chances are that Aaron Rodgers will be back by December 22nd, when we head to Green Bay, an entirely different prospect from facing Scott Tolzien or Seneca Wallace or Matt Flynn or Brett Favre.  The Packers are currently 5-5, one game back of Detroit and Chicago in what is still a very winnable NFC North (unless you’re Minnesota).  That aside, we actually have a very good shot of winning most of our remaining games.

In recent seasons, 9-7 is the worst record that an AFC North team has finished with and still made the playoffs.  Cincinnati did it in 2011 and Baltimore did it in 2009.  Last time we made the playoffs through the wild card, we lost in the wild card game to Denver (let’s not go there), but the time before that was 2005.  Things worked out a bit better that time.

So, if we assume that 9-7 will be good enough – the strength of the AFC West means that all teams have a shot at the playoffs, but the likelihood of either Kansas or Denver taking the first wild card slot with a very strong record means that only the second wild card slot is available for the six teams who are all sitting on 4-6 at the moment, like the Steelers – then we can only afford to lose one more game.  The New York Jets hold the slot at the moment with a 5-5 record, an identical record to Miami.

If we do make the playoffs, we of course have a chance to go all the way.  Not a very big chance, of course, but to end up 9-7 from a 0-4 start…or a 2-6 mid-season record for that matter… shows the sort of late-season form that is the hallmark of teams that have surprised the league to win the Superbowl.

It wasn’t just the fact that the team was losing and, in the case of the visit to New England at least, losing badly that drew so much concern.  It was that the team looks thoroughly unprepared for next season.  Among the coaching staff, serious questions have been asked about the ability of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley to build a winning team.  Some critics note that Tomlin’s Superbowl was won with Bill Cowher’s team – but of course our most recent Superbowl appearance was with a team that had spent significant time under Tomlin.  LeBeau had looked bereft of ideas a few games ago, although two impressive defensive performances have drawn comments inclusive of the phrase “the old magic”.  Haley, deeply, DEEPLY unpopular thanks largely to the fact that he replaced Bruce Arians (last season’s AP coach of the year) not to mention his confrontational style that has proven as unpopular with Ben as it did with Kurt Warner, has seen the offense improve this season, but there is significant debate as to whether or not this is thanks to him or Ben.

There are significant problems on the playing front as well.  It is fair to say that the salary structure for the 2014-2015 season is what you might call “a bit of a mess”.  We owe the following players the following amounts of money:

Ben Roethlisberger $17,895,000

Troy Polamalu $10,887,500

Ike Taylor $10,454,166

LaMarr Woodley $13,590,000

Heath Miller $9,466,500

Lawrence Timmons $11,816,260

Antonio Brown $8,470,000

That is quite a lot of money being owed to not-all-that-many players.  Bleacher Report, via overthecap.com, reckoned that we would have about $63,000 to spare under the 2014 cap.  So who can we get rid of, or rather, who would we want to get rid of?

We have Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Worilds becoming Unrestricted Free Agents.  I’m a big fan of Sanders (largely because I love there being a Sanders Steelers jersey that isn’t personalized) and the fact that we decided to match New England’s offer for him this past summer suggests we might try to hang on to him.  I think Cotchery has earned another contract, but I’m okay with any of the rest of that list leaving.  Keisel has been a great player for us, but 34 is very old for a Defensive End.  This is a JJ Watt/Cameron Jordan league now and Keisel’s dynamism is on the slide.  There are quite a few prospects waiting in the 2014 NFL draft who could fit in at DE, led by Jadeveon Clowney, although our recent run of form has probably dropped us into the low first round of the draft and most commentators have Clowney going long before the draft reaches double figures.

Some UFA’s currently in the squad make more sense to target as potential returning players, particularly Fernando Velasco, who has been hugely impressive since Maurkice Pouncey went down early in the season.  In fact, you could make a good case that we’ve scarcely missed Pouncey at all.  Back in September, SteelersDepot.com suggested that Pouncey’s unfortunate knee injury might prevent us from extending his deal – Pouncey’s rookie deal was more than likely going to be a 2014 priority for the team, now, however…  Let’s just say there will be certain demands that a three-year-three-pro-bowl player is going to have.

Meanwhile, Velasco is 28 and, to me, well worth another deal.  The question is whether or not Velasco’s form has made Pouncey replaceable…or, more significantly, tradeable.  How likely is this?  I don’t know.  The Steelers are loyal to the point of regression and Pouncey has been perhaps our most successful draft pick since…well…maybe 2005 when we picked Heath Miller or even 2004 when a certain Miami, OH quarterback joined the organization.

Our recent draft history has not been outstanding.  The one that really sticks in the mind, particularly given the rapid decline of our Linebackers was in 2010, when we selected Jason Worilds despite Sean Lee still being available.  Worilds has recent commented that he prefers to play at Left Outside Linebacker, which of course is where you find LaMarr Woodley.  Woodley is one player who I would certainly not be too sad to see depart Pittsburgh.  Nothing against him personally (that would be silly given I don’t even know him), but he is getting an awful lot of money for not an awful lot of production.  This season he has 19 solo tackles, 14 assisted tackles and 5 sacks.  That is currently (before the Cleveland game) good enough for eleventh on the team.  Hang on…how many guys play defense?  Lawrence Timmons has 54 solo tackles, 29 assisted  Of course, he only has one sack.  That perhaps tells you a lot about the way our D is set up.  Woodley is our sack leader.  He’s only 12th out of all LBs in sacks, but the sixth highest paid OLB in the league.  He had a sack a game in 5/6 of our first games (none against the Vikings).  Is it harsh to say that Woodley is not producing?  I don’t think so.

However, it is not a given that we will be able to rebuild in the 2014 draft.  Not necessarily because of a lack of talent, but at least partially because we are a LONG way from the 1974 draft, or even the days that we used to get three long-tenured players out of any given draft class.

There are plenty of good free agents on the market this offseason, notably those in positions where the Steelers have need.  I am quite intrigued by LeVeon Bell, but there are guys like Maurice Jones-Drew and Ben Tate on the market.  Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham from the 49ers, along with Eric Decker and Jeremy “if he comes back healthy” Maclin make for an interesting group of WRs.  The list of available linemen, offensive and defensive, is extensive, as is the list of available linebackers.  We of course have to balance the needs we perceive that we have alongside the ability of any given player to actually fill them.  Signing, say, Jonathan Vilma, who can no longer stay healthy, would perhaps not be the right move if we decide to look at the free agent linebacker market.  Perhaps the most intriguing OLB on the market this offseason is Jason Worilds?

Arguably our greatest need, particularly if we let Ryan Clark move into the ESPN studio, where his mind has frequently seemed to be in recent months, and if we decide that Ike Taylor, as deadly as he is when shutting down AJ Green, is no longer worth the money we are scheduled to pay him, will be at defensive back.  Again, there is availability, but the number of truly elite defensive backs in the league is considerably lower than you might think.

I often wonder how long after a Superbowl win you should wait until your team is competitive again.  Players often jump ship after winning a ring and the brutal nature of the NFL means that player durability is as low as it ever was.  Consequently, dynasties seem to be a thing of the past – but is it not reasonable to expect that a competent organisation (which the Steelers clearly are, current coaching issues aside) should be able to keep a team in playoff contention even with a Superbowl hangover in mind.  We failed to make the playoffs last season.  If we fail to do so this season, then it seems reasonable to me that we should be back in playoff contention soon after.  Right now, I just don’t know.

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