The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers finished the regular season with a 10-6 record and an exit in the second round of the playoffs. This success was in spite of injuries and/or suspensions to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (92.7), star running back Le’Veon Bell (94.0), his super-sub DeAngelo Williams (84.2), center Maurkice Pouncey, tackle Kelvin Beachum (79.4), young wide receiver Martavis Bryant (71.8), which alone combined for 44 missed regular season games. The absence of Williams, and the limitations of Roethlisberger, in the playoffs led to the Steeler’s reliance on backup running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (65.5), whose fumble was instrumental in the Denver Broncos’ win over the Steelers in the Divisional Round.
Any Steelers success moving forward will be largely due to their offensive triple of Roethlisberger, Bell and receiver Antonio Brown (96.5). Roethlisberger’s 50.7 accuracy percentage on deep passes was the best in the league in 2015. Bell’s elusiveness rating (69.6), yards after contact (385), and breakaway percentage (40.8) were third, third and fifth in the league at the time of his season-ending injury. Besides tying for the league lead in catches (136) and finishing second in yards (1834), Brown finished second, third and fifth among wide receivers in yards after the catch (624), missed tackles forced (23), and drop rate (3.55), respectively. Brown’s accomplishments are even more impressive when one considers he played with Michael Vick (51.0) and Landry Jones (49.2) for stretches of the season. A 2016 season with all three of these men playing 16 games would be nightmare-producing for opposing defenses.
The strength of the Pittsburgh defense is with its two 3-4 defensive ends Cameron Heyward (84.3) and Stephon Tuitt (80.4). Tuitt (7.8) and Heyward (7.4) finished 12th and 16th in run stop percentage among 3-4 defensive ends, combining for 46 run stops (23 each) on 405 run defense snaps. The pair was also solid rushing the passer, with Heyward (7.5) and Tuitt (6.8) finishing 15th and 20th respectively in pass-rush productivity, combining for 104 pressures in 1136 regular season pass-rush snaps.
Below we discuss three pressing needs the Steelers need to address if they are going to stay in the upper echelon of AFC teams moving forward.
1. Offensive line
As Roethlisberger gets older, the impetus is on the Steelers to make him more upright in 2016, both for his health (four missed games in 2015), and for his performance (he was only 20th in the league in accuracy percentage under pressure in 2015). While an offensive line of Beachum, Ramon Foster (82.3), Pouncey (graded positively in every full season of his career), David DeCastro (83.4) and Marcus Gilbert (75.3) would be a formidable unit, Foster and Beachum are both unrestricted free agents, and Beachum and Pouncey combined for only 329 snaps in 2015. When injuries hit, the drop in quality of offensive line play was substantial, with Cody Wallace (33.9 in 1231 snaps) posting the second-worst pass blocking efficiency among centers with a 94.6. Alejandro Villanueva (42.7 in 909 snaps) was poor as well, finishing 11th worst among tackles with a 93.2 pass blocking efficiency, allowing 39 total pressures on 459 pass-blocking snaps.
The Steelers may not have the cap space to retain Foster and/or Beachum, and with only Wallace, Villanueva and Chris Hubbard (53.6 in 34 snaps) as options on the current roster, the Steelers will probably need to look to the draft for help. At tackle, Jack Conklin of Michigan State (13 total pressures allowed in 2015), Taylor Decker (15) of Ohio State and Ronnie Stanley (13) of Notre Dame are options in the mid-to-late first round. All three of these players graded positively as both a run blocker and a pass blocker in both 2014 and 2015, and would be a contributor immediately.
Cody Whitehair of Kansas State was solid as both a pass protector and run blocker in 2015. While he played left tackle at college, he projects as a guard in the NFL, and would be a solid addition in 2016. Jarell Broxton and Joshua Garnett of Stanford both stood out as a run blockers in 2015, and would be good later-round projects at guard.
Brandon Boykin (76.9), William Gay (74.5), Will Allen (73.4), Robert Golden (72.3) and Antwon Blake (35.1) are all contributors that will be unrestricted free agents this offseason. Blake played very poorly in 2016, and should be easily replaced by Ross Cockrell (80.5), who was the Steelers best player in the secondary in 2015, despite playing only 736 snaps (to Blake’s 1046). Gay is 31 years old, and given the depth of the free agent market at cornerback (link), may be easily retainable at a cheap rate. He can also contribute as a slot corner, where he finished 2015 fourth in yards per coverage snap (0.84). Retaining slot corner Boykin may be more difficult, although the presence of Casey Hayward (82.7) and Leon Hall (78.4) on the market will drive down his value. It’s curious as to why the Steelers waited until week 13 to give Boykin (407 snaps) a role in the defense, since he’s graded well in all four of his seasons in the NFL, including 2015.
Safety is a deep position in the free agent market, with the likes of Eric Berry (88.0), Reggie Nelson (84.2), Rodney McLeod (83.9) and George Iloka (82.6) probably out of the Steelers’ price range. With the lack of top-end safety talent in the upcoming draft (link to mock draft), the easiest solution may be to retain either Allen or Golden at their market value. Allen’s age (34), may make the younger Golden (25) the more attractive candidate of the two. While a bit shaky in coverage (67.9 coverage grade), Golden proved to be a sure tackler in 2015, missing only two tackles after week 6.
3. Inside linebacker
The Steelers have invested a lot of resources into their linebacker core in general, and specifically at inside linebacker, with little to show for it in 2015. Laurence Timmons (37.9) will likely be gone by next season, as he did not play well in 2015, will be 30 years old, and will have a cap number north of $15 million for the 2016 season. Ryan Shazier (51.5) was a first-round pick in 2014, but has yet to meet the expectations that come with that pick. His 1.02 yards per coverage snap were 16th-worst in the league among inside linebackers, and he had only 31 stops to go with 13 missed tackles in the regular season. He did add 15 stops with only one missed tackle in two playoff games, including a +9.4 grade against the Bengals, showing some promise for the future.
Backup Sean Spence (52.7) is unrestricted free agent, meaning Vince Williams (73.6) is the only player currently on the roster to be considered as a replacement for Timmons. Williams was solid in 196 snaps in 2015, as he missed just two tackles while producing 13 stops. However, he did allow 14 of the 15 passes into his coverage to be completed (with one pass defensed), with 60 yards after the catch. If the Steelers aren’t comfortable going into next season with Williams as a starter, there are few options available in free agency after Jerrell Freeman (90.6) and Derrick Johnson (87.4), who would probably be too expensive for the Steelers. Reggie Ragland of Alabama and Scooby Wright of Arizona look like immediate difference makers in the draft, and may be available when the Steelers pick at 25. Ragland, who is solid against both the run and the pass, can also rush off the edge, making him an intriguing candidate for the Steelers defensive scheme.
An offensive trio of Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown alone will win the Steelers a decent share of games, and having them all back healthy next season will have them in the mix for the foreseeable future. Getting the Steelers over the hump, however, will require them to take care of their offensive line, secondary and linebacking core. With a difficult cap situation, this may require the Steelers to get creative financially in retaining their own free agents and re-tool in the draft. If they do so successfully, the Steelers will be a difficult team to beat in 2016 and beyond.