This Sunday, the Green Bay Packers will take on the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC Championship and the Indianapolis Colts will challenge the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be forced to watch the games at home and wonder what could have been. There is a lot of speculation about what the Steelers could have done to the Denver Broncos if they had just gotten by the Baltimore Ravens. Regardless of possible alternate outcomes, the truth is Pittsburgh didn’t get it done when it counted the most and they’re one and done in 2014.
The Steelers went to the Super Bowl almost four years ago exactly. To many in Steeler Nation it feels longer than that. Pittsburgh fans can’t help but be reminded of the Tim Tebow overtime incident seemingly every five minutes. The team then suffered through two seasons of mediocrity with spots of hope. 2014 felt like a playoff rebound kind of season but that was in question at points throughout the season. Ultimately the Steelers won the AFC North but fell quite short of a Super Bowl run. If the team wants to hoist the Lombardi after the 2015 season they have a number of improvements to make. Here are four improvements the Steelers need to make in the 2015 season in order to be a Super Bowl contender next year.
Improve the pass rush: If it feels like we’ve been beating this horse dead for the last three years we have. The Steelers sacked the passer 33 times this season and allowed Ben Roethlisberger to get sacked 33 times. Common sense tells you the first number has to go up dramatically. The Steelers sack totals in three seasons prior to 2014 were: 34, 37, and 35. In the seasons of their last three Super Bowl appearances their sack totals were: 48 (Super Bowl XLV), 51 (Super Bowl XLIII), and 47 (Super Bowl XL). Keith Butler is the man in charge of Pittsburgh’s defense now. However, it doesn’t matter if Butler, Dick LeBeau, or George Perles is the defensive coordinator, if this team can’t produce a consistent pass rush they cannot get off the field on third down and they cannot create turnovers. The team may choose to re-sign Jason Worilds, spend dollars on a big time free agent, or sign a guy like Arthur Moats on the cheap and spend a high round draft pick on an edge rusher. Dave Bryan broke down the role of the “elephant” in a hybrid defense and suggested this might be a route the Steelers take. Regardless of how they manufacture a pass rush, it has to happen.
Create more turnovers: The Steelers forced 21 turnovers in 2014 which was good for 23rd in the league. Other playoff teams and contenders such as the Ravens (22 turnovers) and Seahawks (24 turnovers) were close but if you’re a team that gets beat regularly by double explosive plays and can’t stop teams on 1st and 2nd down (let alone 3rd) you have to be much more opportunistic. This goes hand-in-hand with the pass rush. If the Steelers get more pressure, more turnovers will follow.
Turn drives into points: The Steelers improved greatly on offense in 2014. They went from 20th in the league in offensive yards in 2013 to 2nd in 2014. They also ascended from 16th in points to 7th. That’s the highest the Steelers have ranked in either category since Kordell Stewart was quarterbacking the team and Stephon Tuitt was all of 8 years old. This was an incredible offensive season for the team but outside of the Indianapolis and Baltimore games it never felt like this group reached their true potential. You’d be hard pressed to find a better team between the 20s but they had terrible problems in the red zone. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers led the NFL with 39.38 yards per drive but averaged 2.31 points per drive which was good for sixth in the league. The Steelers only scored touchdowns on 51.72% of their red zone trips. That put them at 19th in the league behind the likes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Texans. Yards don’t win ball games. Points win ball games. Also, as evidenced by the loss to the Ravens, field goals just aren’t going to cut it.
Field position: The Steelers average starting position on drives this season was 25.27. That number makes them the third worst in the league for starting position. It is difficult to put up points when you have to drive the field an average of 74.73 yards. This can be remedied in a number of ways. Creating more turnovers, as previously mentioned, would put them in great field position. We at Steelers Depot are big fans of getting points off of turnovers (POOTOS).
The return game could go a long way in improving average field position. Dri Archer was drafted not only to act as a weapon out of the backfield but also to improve the Steelers return game and hopefully get Antonio Brown off punt return duties. Archer averaged a paltry 17.9 return yards returning nine kicks. His lone punt return went for two yards. Second year receiver Markus Wheaton helped the Steelers in this department, averaging 24.7 return yards on 20 kicks but he didn’t exactly light the world on fire. The offense needs the opportunity to start drives at the 30-yard line or better. General Manager Kevin Colbert certainly shouldn’t spend a high draft pick on another return specialist but the Steelers should look in free agency for a cheap option and Archer probably deserves another shot next season.
This team still has the best offensive triplets in the NFL with Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Not to mention they have some stellar complement pieces in Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller. It’s very possible the defense could get at least marginally better in 2015 under the direction of Keith Butler with an infusion of talented youth. But if the Steelers want to bring home a 7th Super Bowl win they’ll need to improve in at least most of these areas. Most of these improvements might seem like common sense but they can be the difference between contenders and pretenders.