NFL

Despite improvements, Steelers still AFC’s second best

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Ethan Sears
Written by Ethan Sears

The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in a frustrating position. They’re coming off an 11-5 season in which they lost the AFC title game and improved during the offseason. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is back from suspension and the team did well in the draft while losing none of its key players from last year. They’re the best team in the AFC North — at least on paper — by a fair margin. Yet, they still aren’t good enough to win the conference.

Offensively, this is one of the best teams in football. After quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flirted with retirement, the 35-year-old is back for another season. Roethlisberger did begin to show decline last season, particularly on the road. He threw just nine touchdowns and eight interceptions away from Heinz Field, with his passer rating at just 78.4. Charting stats didn’t do him justice either. Roethlisberger threw an interceptable pass every 17.79 attempts, 29th in the league, per Cian Fahey’s charting. That’s something to watch going forward. But Big Ben was still one of the better quarterbacks in the league last season, finishing top-10 in DYAR, DVOA and QBR.

Roethlisberger is also throwing to an incredible receiving corps. Antonio Brown finished with 106 receptions for 1,284 yards last season, ranking seventh among wideouts in DYAR. It was generally considered a down year.

Assuming Bryant is reinstated, he’ll be a massive deep threat. In 2015, he averaged 15.3 yards per reception as the Steelers regularly deployed Byrant as a vertical threat.

Eli Rogers and second round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster will both  see time in the slot. Rogers held the role for most of last season and, despite just 48 receptions, was very efficient. He caught 73 percent of his targets and ranked tenth among receivers in DVOA. As for Smith-Schuster, the USC product has a high ceiling if he can be more consistent on 50-50 balls. His size makes him an awkward fit for the slot, so perhaps he’ll get some time outside as well, but Smith-Schuster had a 66 percent catch rate at USC last year. He can also beat press or zone coverage with consistency.

At tight end, Jesse James is a replacement-level player. Pittsburgh is unlikely to depend on in the passing game. He had just 338 receiving yards last season and could see a drop in targets with Bryant and Smith-Schuster now part of the offense.

On the ground, Pittsburgh features the best running back in football, Le’Veon Bell. The 25-year old had a 56 percent success rate and averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season. He also ranked third among running backs in DYAR and fifth in DVOA, rushing for 1,268 yards. Bell had an impact in the passing game as well, catching 75 balls for 616 receiving yards. The only concern with him should be injury-related. Bell had surgery during the offseason to fix a groin injury. Though he’s expected to be fine, the Steelers don’t have a great crew of backups. If Bell ends up going down, it will, in all likelihood, be third-round pick James Conner who gets the bulk of the work.

Le'Veon Bell Antonio Brown, Jan 8, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) celebrates with Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s worth giving the offensive line a good amount of credit in the run game’s success. The unit ranked third in adjusted line yards last season and became savants at blocking inside zone. At right tackle, Marcus Gilbert ranked 11th in football with an 86.7 PFF grade. But this line made its bones on the interior. David DeCastro and Ramon Foster made up perhaps the best guard combination in the league, allowing 0.5 sacks combined, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac. The two had PFF grades of 86.3 and 87.9, respectively, both ranking in the top-eight at the position. In between them, center Maurkice Pouncey blew just 10 blocks all year, per FOA. At left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva posted a 79.3 PFF grade and blew just three run blocks, per FOA.

Defensively, the Steelers aren’t quite as impressive. However, they did rank 11th in DVOA last season, more than good enough to supplement the offense.

Its biggest weakness last season was pressure, as Pittsburgh got to the quarterback just 24.7 percent of the time, per FOA.

General manager Kevin Colbert addressed this issue by spending a first-round pick on T.J. Watt, an edge rusher out of Wisconsin who will slot right in at outside linebacker. Watt displayed strong bend and burst in school last season. He already has a refined bull and speed rush, with good ability against the run as well. The biggest knock on him during the draft process was that Watt only had one year of production at Wisconsin. That’s true, but the bigger worry for this scribe was how much of that production came via stunts. Those won’t help Watt rack up numbers quite as easily at the next level. He has to be able to get pressure without schematic help. If Watt struggles at the start of the year, that will be a big reason why.

On the edge, the Steelers have a long line of players. The problem is that not many of them were productive as pass rushers last season. Their best chance for a bounce-back is probably Bud Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick who played just seven games last season. James Harrison is 39 years old, but had an 86.7 PFF grade last season, ranking 10th among edge rushers. Though he didn’t put up an extraordinary number of pressures, Pittsburgh will take what it can get from Harrison, who will get it by any means necessary. Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo will be in the outside linebacker rotation as well, though likely more on early downs. The two had run stop rates of 89 and 75 percent last season, strong numbers for edge rushers.

At inside linebacker, Ryan Shazier is the defense’s best individual player. His 74 percent run stop rate was sixth among linebackers last year. Shazier also had a solid 77.0 PFF grade and made his first Pro Bowl. Next to him, Vince Williams will step into an every-down role and it’s hard to know what to expect. Williams played just 268 snaps last season and had a 69.0 PFF grade, struggling greatly in coverage. However, that was a fairly small sample size, with the 28-year old seeing just 11 targets, per FOA.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier

Up front, the Steelers are fine, but unimpressive. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt had a solid 86 percent run stop rate last season, per FOA. Statistically, he was also the best pass rusher of the group with 3.5 sacks, 11 hits and 21 hurries, per FOA. Opposite him, Cameron Heyward allowed just 1.3 average rushing yards per tackle, according to FOA, and had a 77 percent run stop rate. Expect the newly acquired Tyson Alualu to be worked into the defensive end rotation as well. Alualu had a poor 50.2 PFF grade in Jacksonville last year, but he posted an 81 percent run stop rate, per FOA. At nose tackle, Javon Hargrave had a 74.5 PFF grade as a rookie in 2016. If he develops further, Hargrave could become a centerpiece of this defense.

At cornerback, Ross Cockrell had a middling 49 percent success rate last year, per FOA. William Gay was Pittsburgh’s best player at the position, posting a 54 percent success rate and allowing 6.2 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. However, Gay is 32 years old, making it hard to depend on him. Pittsburgh will hope the 22-year old Artie Burns takes the next step after a respectable rookie year. Burns, a first rounder in 2016, had a 75.9 PFF grade and defensed 13 passes. If any of the three get hurt, the Steelers may be in trouble. Senquez Golson, a second-round pick in 2015 who has yet to play an NFL game, is the next man up.

Safety Mike Mitchell had a 51 percent success rate last year, ranking inside the top-25 at the position, per FOA. Though he hits age 30 this year, Mitchell is fairly dependable. Next to him, Sean Davis had strong numbers in coverage, allowing just 5.9 adjusted yards per target with a 52 percent success rate, per FOA. However, he also missed 15 tackles, per FOA, a large reason why his PFF grade was an abysmal 48.1. If Davis’ tackling improves in his second season, he could turn into one of the better safeties in the league.

Pittsburgh is a really good football team. It just isn’t quite good enough. There’s no weakness to nitpick — the offense is top-three caliber, the defense is fine and Mike Tomlin is a good head coach.

The Steelers just aren’t as good as the Patriots.

If you would like to learn more about the advanced stats we used, check out FootballOutsiders.com, which is largely free, or ProFootballFocus.com which is not. 

About the author

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears is the publisher of sports web site EthanSears.com and will graduate in 2017 from Rye High School in Westchester County, New York. He has loved sports from an early age and intends to have a long career in journalism.

Ethan interned at the New York Post in the summers of 2015 and 2016. He also writes for Giants Wire, USA Today's New York Giants blog. In addition to writing and editing his own website, Ethan is the sports editor for his school paper, Garnet and Black. You can follow him on Twitter @ethan_sears.