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Steelers' finish could mean few offensive changes

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 11:15 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell carries for a first down against the Browns during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at Heinz Field.

The Steelers' offense very much reflected the team's season: forgettable first half, promising second half.

“I thought we were pretty effective on offense coming down the stretch,” team president Art Rooney II said. “Certainly the development of (running back) Le'Veon Bell was something we were hoping for. He really looks to be the kind of player who can be a big contributor going forward. So, yeah, I would say offensively we made a lot of progress, and I think that is something we want to try to build on.”

Every key player on offense is signed for next season except wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, who can become unrestricted free agents. Cotchery had 10 touchdown catches a season after having zero in 2012.

Team MVP Antonio Brown had one of the best seasons by any wide receiver in team history; he graded out No. 3 overall in Pro Football Focus' league-wide evaluations, trailing only Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson. Brown's 93.7 yards-per-game average broke a team record that was a half-century old.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 15 times, fumbled five times and threw five interceptions during the 0-4 September, but recovered to set team records for attempts and completions in a season. Rooney said he remains one of the NFL's most underrated players.

Counting passes intentionally thrown away or spiked, Roethlisberger's pass completion was 68.1 percent.

Bell couldn't get on the field until late September after being sidelined twice by injuries during camp, but had a big December with 214 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the final two games. In the three games before that, he caught 17 passes.

Tight end Heath Miller needed time to fully recover from his serious knee injury, and it showed in some of his blocking, but his 58 catches in 14 games were the third most of his career.

The offensive line could have been ruined by Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey's season-ending knee injury eight plays into the season, but pick-up Fernando Velasco proved to be a more than capable replacement. Rooney wants to re-sign him to fill a utility lineman-type role.

Left tackle Mike Adams was benched after allowing 3 12 sacks against Minnesota in Week 4. But Kelvin Beachum — in essence, a guard playing undersized at tackle — moved in to solidify the position and probably will be the starter going into camp.

Left guard Ramon Foster was the steadiest lineman, and right guard David DeCastro could be a Pro Bowl player by next season. Both graded out very high as run blockers while allowing only two sacks apiece.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert allowed the most sacks (11) and quarterback hurries (30) among a starting line that has an average age of 25.

“I like the way we finished and some of the things in terms of how we finished — the improvement of the offense,” Rooney said. “Those, I think, are positive signs. In general, I think there's a lot of younger players we feel good about.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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