Steelers need perfect storm of events to reach playoffs
Ben Roethlisberger doesn't want many changes on offense, and he might get his wish. Of the Steelers' 19 unrestricted free agents, the only significant names on offense are receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, plus center Fernando Velasco. Sanders will leave via free agency — another team will offer him more than the Steelers. Cotchery, 32 next season, could attract attention as a reasonably priced No. 3 receiver coming off a huge season (nine touchdowns).
The Steelers will add at least one receiver in the draft and, if Cotchery leaves, will be forced to look for another in free agency. They would be wise to bring back Velasco as a backup center/guard. They also will add a backup running back during the offseason.
Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley are fine-tuning a potentially explosive offense. Running back Le'Veon Bell proved against Green Bay that he's versatile and durable enough to build around his talents, which will take pressure off Roethlisberger. The key will be what kind of commitment they make to running the ball and how confident Haley and coach Mike Tomlin are in an offensive line that is better equipped to run block, though it protected Roethlisberger well during the second half of the season. Team MVP Antonio Brown might be the spark, but Bell has become an integral member of the offense.
Something has to be done about the offensive line. The Steelers used six starting units and 12 in-game line combinations because of injuries, and it restricted what the offense could do. Still, the offense showed signs of growth. An addition of a first-round weapon at tight end or receiver and the continued command of the offense by Roethlisberger could make for a formidable offense next season.
That is, if the offensive line can play up to its two first-round (David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey) and two second-round picks' (Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert) pedigrees.
This will be the Steelers' most-overhauled area. Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark and Ziggy Hood are all but certain to be gone, and Jason Worilds could get a mega-offer the Steelers can't match. So what to do with the oft-injured LaMarr Woodley? It might depend on Worilds. If he leaves, can the Steelers afford to take a huge cap hit and shed a player who had five sacks in his first six games before getting hurt again? Woodley's departure might not be the done deal many anticipate.
The secondary must get younger, but given Troy Polamalu's performance level and newfound durability, he might return as the Steelers might not be able to risk breaking in two new starting safeties in the same season. Ike Taylor probably will return, if only because his late-season contract restructuring all but forces it.
There's no doubt the defense is in transition. Keisel and Clark likely are out. Don't expect the Steelers to give up on Woodley despite injuries that have caused him to miss 14 games the past three seasons. Management finds itself in the position of making a decision about Worilds, who played well after working his way into the starting lineup in Week 6. With Keisel on the bubble, the Steelers must address depth on the defensive line. Defensive end Cam Heyward has progressed, but nose tackle Steve McLendon discovered just how big Casey Hampton's shoes are.
We've been hearing for years about how the defense has gotten old and slow. That wasn't quite true until this season. The Steelers have allowed 17 plays of 40 yards or longer (13 have come in losses). Clark and Keisel likely won't be asked back, and it's possible Woodley could go as well. That would help address the slow part of the dilemma.
With the emergence of Heyward, Worilds (if they re-sign him) and the expected growth of Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas, next season could be all the Steelers need to rebound.
At mid-season, it was easy for Steelers fans to envision two new coordinators in 2014, with Todd Haley leaving because of non-performance and Dick LeBeau retiring. Now LeBeau is on record as wanting to return. And Haley's offense has been one of the NFL's best since mid-season, averaging 30 points per game. Roethlisberger has made it clear he wants Haley back. This time, unlike when Bruce Arians was shoved out, the Rooneys will listen.
So how long will Keith Butler wait for the defensive coordinator's job? Probably as long as the Steelers want. He's getting paid handsomely for being the coordinator-in-waiting, and he has told his players he doesn't want to leave. Special teams coach Danny Smith would love to be the Redskins' coach, but Daniel Snyder will go instead for yet another big-name hire if Mike Shanahan is fired.
If the Steelers finish their last 12 games at 8-4, including a win over Cleveland on Sunday, don't expect any major changes on the coaching staff. Once and for all, forget this lunacy about Mike Tomlin and the University of Texas. Todd Haley appears to have the offense headed in the right direction, but he'll need to decide which horse to ride: Roethlisberger or Bell. Haley doesn't change addresses unless he gets a head coaching gig. And LeBeau is too competitive for retirement to be a serious option.
Not long ago, offensive coordinator Todd Haley looked to be a sacrificial lamb. Now it's a no-brainer that he returns for his third year. The offense went from 31st to 16th in the league in four months with the passing game excelling under Roethlisberger. The points are up, the sacks are down, and the running game is starting to show signs of life. With Roethlisberger turning 32 soon, a different coordinator would be counterproductive.
As for the rest of the coaching staff, it should be brought back. There could be a coach or two let go, but don't expect any to be significant.
There are plenty of areas to address: wide receiver, offensive line depth, outside and inside linebacker, cornerback and defensive end. But the Steelers are a projected $10 million over the 2014 salary cap, and they'll need to be at their creative best to generate cap room for a player who can be a difference-maker. After all, this is a team that hasn't added a truly high-quality free agent since Clark in 2006. And they need to get working on a new deal for Roethlisberger.
Worilds could jettison Pittsburgh through free agency, but the Steelers might have no choice but to reach in the back of their bank vault to keep him, considering how Woodley has proven vulnerable to injuries since an injury-free 2010 season. The Steelers might not want to explore the free agent market but should consider locking up a handful of experienced offensive linemen after getting hammered by injuries the past three seasons, including season-ending injuries to centers Pouncey and Velasco this year. Sanders will attract a number of offers, but the Steelers probably won't be among his many pursuers.
The Steelers need to worry about signing or extending a couple of their own — Roethlisberger, Pouncey, Worilds — before entertaining the thought of bringing somebody in from the outside. Still, the Steelers are going to have to find a handful of free agents who possibly will be able to fill in right away. They don't have the luxury of just filling ancillary roles like they've done in years past.
With the impending loss of Clark, a free safety who can step in if Shamarko Thomas falters is a must. The same goes at wide receiver for Sanders.