Breaking Down The Steelers Starting Lineup Breakdown From Pro Football Focus

By Matthew Marczi

Recently, Pro Football Focus embarked on a series that sought to evaluate the starting lineups of every team in the league, and this Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Steelers were up. Although the analysis itself does not delve into much depth, they do rate the quality of play of each projected starter.

The players are rated on a scale that ranges from “Elite (Blue Chip)” to “Poor”. Rookies, of course, are noted, but not rated on the scale. Between the two aforementioned ratings are, in descending order, “High Quality”, “Above Average”, “Average”, and “Below Average”.

To preface the Steelers’ own evaluation, as Pro Football Focus does at the beginning of this article series, here is the following description that the site provides explaining the nature of the ratings:

“The packages utilized for the starting units will be the most frequently used one from last year (unless I know this is unlikely to be the case in 2013), and I’ve graded only the probable starting group. The colours [the ratings are color coordinated] attributed to each player are not simply a straight take based on last year’s performance — I’ve extrapolated where I think it’s appropriate, or changed grades if I feel injury or lack of back-up drastically reduced them. For draftees, I’ve just used default grades based on where they were selected.”

In Pittsburgh’s case, the site uses, of course, the base 3-4 package on defense. On offense, they used the 11 personnel package, with three wide receivers. According to the site, this package was used on 51% of the team’s offensive snaps. I would be curious to know, however, how many snaps that fullback Will Johnson played, especially later in the season, and if we can expect him to be in on a more representative number of snaps in his second year.

So how did the Steelers fare among their 22 starters on offense and defense? In terms of raw numbers, Pro Football Focus believes that the Steelers have one blue chip player (on offense) and two poor players (on defense) among their starters. There is one below average player (on defense), six average players (all on offense), five above average players (four on defense), and six high quality players (four on defense). For the cherry on top, one starter is a rookie.

Now, let’s take this section by section, first by the offense. At quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger represents the team’s sole blue chip player, while a pair of his receiving threats—wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller—are rated as high quality. One wonders if Miller might have been rated as a blue chip player if he were not coming off a knee injury.

Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are both deemed average by Pro Football Focus. In fact, the entire offensive line is considered average aside from center Maurkice Pouncey, who is rated as just above average. Knowing the controversy that might spark, the site noted:

“Obviously the player most Steeler fans will call “foul” is Pouncey, but the truth is, while he may look like the real deal he rarely delivers as such. Compared to players like John Sullivan, Nick Mangold, Chris Myers (or even guys like Brian De La Puente or Ryan Wendell) his actual production is only average. His grades since 2010 have been -2.9, -0.2, and last year +5.4, but when a hype machine is in motion, on a position no one but us watches on every snap, it’s difficult to explain the emperor is only wearing jeans and a t-shirt.”

Perhaps there is some merit to the idea that Pouncey’s play has been canonized somewhat early in his career—although the brashness of claiming that “no one but us watches [the center] on every snap” is certainly off-putting—however, it is rather peculiar to have a three-time consecutive All-Pro athlete as not even high quality. But, moving on.

It is interesting, though not overly surprising, to note that the site has Le’Veon Bell starting. Of course, he does not have a ranking, but I would be curious to know how Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer would have been ranked—my guess is average to below average.

On to the defensive side of the ball, where the team’s three weakest links reside. Both defensive end Ziggy Hood and inside linebacker Larry Foote are considered poor. I suspect that many fans would agree with that. Interestingly, Pro Football Focus notes its belief that Cameron Heyward “looks like he has the ability to be a high quality end”, and suggests that not starting him over Hood “looks almost like a team hoping a clear first-round bust can be disguised by playing time”.

The below average starter of the bunch is, unsurprisingly, Jason Worilds. Both Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen are considered above average, as are linemen Brett Keisel and Steve McLendon. The latter is especially interesting given his limited snap counts. The most interesting note on the whole chart, however, might be the charitable rating of LaMarr Woodley as a high quality player.

The site notes that the rating is “a big pass on last season”, adding that if last season were the basis of the evaluation, he would have rated average at best, but knowing that injuries played a role, they relied on his past reputation.

Another player whose reputation played in their favor was safety Troy Polamalu, who spent most of last year on the sidelines. Both he and fellow safety Ryan Clark are rightly considered high quality players, although Polamalu could burst his way back up to blue chip status if he can stay healthy and regain the touch for turnovers.

Last but not least is inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who wraps up the last of the team’s six high quality players. He finds himself paired with two of the team’s lowest-ranked players in Worilds and Foote.

I find it apt the secondary receives the most recognition in this breakdown, with two above average players and two high quality players, as it seems to be an accurate depiction of where the defense’s strength has rested over the past couple seasons.

So what is your take on Pro Football Focus’ take on the Steelers’ starting lineup? Fair? Unfair? Which rankings do you think they nailed, and which do you think are way off-base?

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