The theme of the 2014 offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers was getting younger and faster. The Steelers chose not to re-sign many aging veterans such as defensive end Brett Keisel, safety Ryan Clark, linebacker Larry Foote and receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Their replacements were signed in free agency and selected in the draft, and they all have one thing in common: speed.
Safety Mike Mitchell was signed to a five-year, $25 million contract and replaced Clark in the back end. Ryan Shazier, the fastest linebacker in the draft, was the team's first-round pick and was immediately inserted into the starting lineup during OTAs and minicamp. The speed theme continued in the third and fourth rounds. The Steelers chose Kent State's Dri Archer, the fastest player at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, in the third round and expect him to make an immediate impact as a returner on special teams. The coaches are trying to figure out where he fits best in the offense. He attended meetings and practiced with both position groups during spring workouts. In the fourth round, receiver Martavis Bryant was selected and the plan is for him to stretch the field much in the same way Mike Wallace did for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before he left in free agency before last season.
The Steelers were 6-2 in the second half of last season and almost sneaked into the playoffs because Roethlisberger ran the no-huddle offense and masked some of the team's defensive issues by scoring 27.8 points per game over the final eight contests. In the spring, the Steelers worked extensively on the no-huddle and they expect it to be a staple of the offense.
Roethlisberger commented during minicamp that the Steelers defense is faster than he has ever seen in his 11-year career. Expect defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to draw up some blitzes for Mitchell and Shazier, who occasionally lined up at outside linebacker in the spring. The Steelers hope the speed will produce more turnovers. They have forced just 40 turnovers the past two seasons.
One other area that will be emphasized in training camp is run defense. The Steelers, perennially one of the top rush defenses in the league, fell to 21st in that category last year. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the team's second-round pick, was chosen to help fix that problem.
Players report: July 25
First practice: July 26
Joint practices with Bills: Aug. 13-14
Camp ends: Aug. 16
--Second-year running back Le'Veon Bell missed three games in 2013, but he still managed to set the franchise record for most yards from scrimmage for a rookie. Bell had 1,259 yards, 860 rushing and 399 receiving in 13 games. Franco Harris, the previous record-holder, had 1,235 yards in 14 games as a rookie in 1972.
--Receiver Antonio Brown set a franchise record with 1,499 receiving yards and became the first player in NFL history to record at least five receptions and 50 yards in every game of a season. He made his second Pro Bowl but his first as a receiver. He received the honor in 2011 as a punt returner.
--Team strength: Quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger is coming off one of his best seasons. He passed for 4,261 yards and 28 touchdowns, and was most productive down the stretch when the coaches committed to the no-huddle offense. Expect similar or better production this season if the no-huddle is implemented from the start.
The Steelers have leaned on Roethlisberger and the passing game for the last few years because the running game stalled. New line coach Mike Munchak was hired to fix the problems in the running game. If he does, Roethlisberger can have an even better 2014 because the play-action threat would return.
--Breakout player: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton was limited to six receptions as a rookie because he was hampered by finger injuries that required two surgeries. But that didn't stop the Steelers from letting Emmanuel Sanders leave in free agency. They are counting on Wheaton to take his spot opposite Antonio Brown. Wheaton, a third-round pick in 2013, had a strong spring and is poised for a more productive sophomore season. He should see plenty of single coverage because opposing defenses will concentrate their efforts on Brown.
--Fantasy football reality check: Running back LeGarrette Blount.
The Steelers would like to limit the big hits on second-year running back Le'Veon Bell so look for Blount, a free-agent acquisition, to get a lot of touches in goal-line situations.
With the Patriots last season, Blount had 772 rushing yards and a career-high seven touchdowns. He was particularly good in the playoffs when he rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over the Colts. If Bell is injured, Blount is more than capable of handling the bulk of the carries in the offense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Ben Roethlisberger. Backups - Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones, Brendon Kay.
Roethlisberger had one of his best statistical seasons, but the Steelers lost their first four games in part because he turned the ball over too much. That was rectified when the Steelers tweaked their protection and went to the no-huddle, but Roethlisberger still finished with 14 interceptions, the third-highest total of his career. The Steelers must find a way to attack in the no-huddle while keeping the turnovers down this season. Gradkowski is entrenched as the top backup. He has started and won games in the league while third-stringer Jones, a fourth-round pick last year, has struggled to adapt to the professional game.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Le'Veon Bell, FB Will Johnson. Backups - LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer, Alvester Alexander, Miguel Maysonet, Jordan Hall.
Bell was slowed by a foot injury early in his rookie campaign, but he came on strong at the end, totaling 860 yards rushing. He is a perfect fit for the outside zone blocking scheme new offensive line coach Mike Munchak will implement. Blount is poised to be a hammer in the red zone and Archer could be a nice change of pace if he picks up the playbook. The Steelers don't use a fullback very often, but when they do Johnson is a very good receiver.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Heath Miller. Backups - Matt Spaeth, Michael Palmer, David Paulson, Rob Blanchflower.
Miller missed the first two games last season after reconstructive knee surgery following the 2012 campaign and did not play as well as he had previously. The Steelers are expecting a big bounce-back season because they extended his contract. Spaeth, who missed 12 games last season with a foot injury, is a solid in-line blocker. Palmer passed Paulson on the depth chart last season and provides some help on special teams. If the Steelers keep four tight ends again it could be a battle between Paulson and Blanchflower, a seventh-round pick whose strength is blocking.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton. Backups - Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant, Justin Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Derek Moye.
During minicamp, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said this receiving corps is "as deep a group as I have ever been around." Brown is a Pro Bowler and is at his best when Roethlisberger gets him in position to run after the catch. Wheaton is an unknown commodity, but he possesses the raw ability to thrive in this offense. Moore, signed as a free agent after spending his first nine seasons with the Saints, is slated to take over in the slot. He was a quick study this spring and developed a good rapport with Roethlisberger. Bryant, at 6-foot-4, is the tall target Roethlisberger has been coveting for years. Look for the Steelers to use him in the red zone. Heyward-Bey, Smith and Moye will battle it out for the fifth receiver spot. Brown, who spent last year on the practice squad, opened some eyes with a very good spring showing.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Kelvin Beachum, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert. Backups - T Mike Adams, C Cody Wallace, G/T Guy Whimper, G/T Wesley Johnson.
The return of Pouncey, who missed last season with a knee injury, should help boost a unit that struggled without him. The Steelers were ranked 27th in the league in rushing and had problems in protection until Roethlisberger fixed that issue at midseason by going to a no-huddle attack. Athletic and smart, Pouncey is the ideal center for the outside zone scheme. DeCastro, a first-round pick in 2012, had a strong season as did Foster. The biggest questions lie at the tackle positions. Beachum solidified the left tackle spot at midseason after Mike Adams failed to protect Roethlisberger's blind side well enough. But Beachum (6-foot-3, 303) does not have prototypical size for a left tackle and must be a supreme technician to be successful. Gilbert has incentive to improve from his mediocre showing in 2013. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Adams, a second-round pick in 2012, has to learn how to pass protect if he wants to stay in the league long-term. Wallace was picked up off the waiver wire after Pouncey got hurt last season and played well when Fernando Velasco went down with an injury late in the season. Whimper is versatile and provided quality depth when the injury bug hit last season, but he might have to fight off Johnson for a roster spot. Johnson, a fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt, has position flexibility as well.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Cameron Heyward, RDE Cameron Thomas, NT Steve McLendon. Backups -- E Stephon Tuitt, E Brian Arnfelt, E Nick Williams, NT Hebron Fangupo, NT Daniel McCullers.
This is a big area of concern for the coaches. Heyward is the best player of the bunch, but he did not break into the starting lineup until the fifth game of last season. Thomas, a free-agent acquisition who played last season in San Diego, lined up with the starters during OTAs and minicamp, but he'll be pushed by Tuitt, a second-round selection from Notre Dame. Tuitt had a difficult time this spring picking up the nuances of coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense.
McLendon, who did not hold up well to double teams last season, added 17 pounds over the offseason. McLendon, who replaced longtime nose tackle Casey Hampton, has been labeled a scapegoat for declining run defense statistics. Arnfelt, an undrafted free agent in 2013, was elevated to the active roster late last season and could stick this season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- ROLB Jarvis Jones, LOLB Jason Worilds, ILB Ryan Shazier, ILB Lawrence Timmons. Backups -- OLB Arthur Moats, OLB Chris Carter, OLB Vic So'oto, ILB Vince Williams, ILB Kion Wilson, ILB Jordan Zumwalt.
This is a position that must improve if the Steelers are going to get back to the playoffs. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense is at its best when the outside linebackers are putting pressure on quarterbacks and getting sacks. That did not happen often enough in 2013. Worilds had a career-high eight sacks, but he won't be worth the $9.8 million the Steelers are paying him this season unless he doubles that amount. Jones had one sack in a disappointing rookie season. He was benched after being handed a starting job at the beginning of the season. The Steelers brought in Joey Porter as an assistant coach to help Jones become a better pass rusher.
Timmons, entering his eighth season, is solid against the run and Shazier has the ability to make an impact immediately. The Steelers are investigating ways to take advantage of Shazier's speed in their blitz packages. Williams started most of last season, but he could be in a battle to make the roster because the Steelers added two players with the flexibility to play inside and outside. Moats practiced mostly with the outside linebackers this spring, but he has the ability to move inside. Zumwalt was drafted to play inside, but he practiced in both spots this spring and is expected to make a strong push for the active roster because of his special teams abilities.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Ike Taylor, RCB Cortez Allen, FS Mike Mitchell, SS Troy Polamalu. Backups -- CB William Gay, CB Brice McCain, CB Antwon Blake, CB Shaquille Richardson, SS Will Allen, SS Shamarko Thomas, FS Robert Golden.
Most outside observers thought the Steelers would address the cornerback position with a high draft pick, but they did not select one until the fifth round. While analysts placed a lot of blame on the secondary for the defense's decline last season, the Steelers had a higher opinion of some of their younger players. They also know a stronger pass rush will make the secondary look better. Taylor took a $4.25 million dollar pay cut to remain with the team after a subpar 2013 season. They are looking to get one more quality season out of him.
Allen was benched for a time last season, but he regained his starting job and played better at the end of the season. Gay had perhaps his best season of his seven-year professional career and will see plenty of time covering slot receivers in sub-packages. If any of those three are injured, the Steelers could have some depth issues. McCain, a free-agent signing, was released by the Texans after a subpar season; Blake has little experience; and Richardson was a fifth-round choice. At safety, Mitchell was brought in to solidify a back end that gave up an uncharacteristic number of big plays last season. He replaces Ryan Clark, who had begun to show his age. Polamalu was healthy and played well for most of last season even though he was a de facto inside linebacker in sub-packages due to injuries.
Thomas was injured in the middle of his rookie season and lost his job in sub-packages to the veteran Allen, who was re-signed after the season. Thomas has the versatility to play safety and slot corner, but he has been slow to progress. Golden is an excellent special teams player who figures to make the roster again for that reason.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Shaun Suisham, P Adam Podlesh, LS Greg Warren, P Brad Wing, LS Bryce Davis.
Suisham won't be kicking many field goals over 50 yards, but he is one of the most dependable kickers in the league. He was 30 for 32 last season and has missed on just 13 attempts since joining the Steelers in the middle of the 2010 season. The Steelers had Zoltan Mesko and Mat McBriar punt for them last season. Mesko was cut in the middle of the season and McBriar finished the season, but the Steelers did not want him back. Podlesh, a veteran, was signed as a free agent and Wing, who played at LSU, was brought in to compete with him. Warren has been a dependable long snapper and is entering his 10th season with the Steelers.
TRANSITION PLAYER: LB Jason Worilds (tendered at $9.754M; signed tender March 4).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--WR Plaxico Burress (not tendered as UFA).
--RB Felix Jones (not tendered as UFA).
--DE Brett Keisel (not tendered as UFA).
--P Mat McBriar (not tendered as UFA).
--RB LaRod Stephens-Howling (not tendered as UFA).
--C/G Fernando Velasco (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Jamaal Westerman (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--LB Ryan Shazier (1/15): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--DE Stephon Tuitt (2/46): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB/WR Dri Archer (3/97): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--WR Martavis Bryant (4/118): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Shaquille Richardson (5/157): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--T/G Wesley Johnson (5/173): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Jordan Zumwalt (6/192): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--NT Daniel McCullers (6/215): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--TE Rob Blanchflower (7/230): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Will Allen: Potential UFA; terms unknown.
--TE Michael Palmer: UFA; terms unknown.
--C/G Cody Wallace: UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--LS Greg Warren: UFA; terms unknown.
--OL Guy Whimper: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Jason Worilds: Transition FA; $9.754M/1 yr.
--RB LeGarrette Blount: UFA Patriots; $3.85M/2 yrs, $950,000 SB.
--WR Darrius Heyward-Bey: UFA Colts; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Brice McCain: FA Texans; terms unknown.
--S Mike Mitchell: UFA Panthers; terms unknown.
--LB Arthur Moats: UFA Bills; $795,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--WR Lance Moore: FA Saints; $3M/2 yrs.
--P Adam Podlesh: FA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Cam Thomas: UFA Chargers; $4M/2 yrs, $1M SB.
--CB Curtis Brown (released).
--T Levi Brown (released).
--S Ryan Clark: UFA Redskins; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Jerricho Cotchery: UFA Panthers; 2 yrs, $2.25M SB.
--RB Jonathan Dwyer: UFA Cardinals; $795,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--LB Larry Foote (released).
--DE Ziggy Hood: UFA Jaguars; terms unknown.
--TE David Johnson: UFA Chargers; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--C/G Eric Olsen: Not tendered as ERFA/Titans; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Emmanuel Sanders: UFA Broncos; $15M/3 yrs, $6M guaranteed.
--LB Stevenson Sylvester: Not tendered as UFA/Bills; terms unknown.
--LB LaMarr Woodley (released/post-June 1 designation)
--DE Al Woods: UFA Titans; terms unknown.
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- Ben Roethlisberger
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- Kelvin Beachum