The 2014 season saw the Pittsburgh Steelers on the rise, finishing with an 11-5 record and a division title following two straight seasons of missing the playoffs with 8-8 records. They finished off the regular season with four straight victories, but suffered a disappointing Wildcard round loss against the Ravens without their star running back.
Nobody is saying that the Steelers, however, are a finished product. Not even the Super Bowl champion is a finished product after a season concludes, because every team undergoes a series of changes throughout the offseason via free agency, retirement, and the draft, in addition to a myriad of other factors.
Pittsburgh is certainly no different, of course, and they are expected to see a number of new faces in the starting lineup for the third straight season. But some priorities weigh more heavily than others, and perhaps the biggest team-wide issue the Steelers faced all of last season was pressuring the quarterback, which needs to be a priority to fix this offseason.
A year ago, the Steelers finished with a below average 33 sacks during the regular season, and that was during a late-season upswing in production. Nearly half of that total was contributed by Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds alone, who each finished the year tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks.
As a whole, the Steelers’ outside linebackers group totaled 19 sacks, with Jarvis Jones contributing two during the first three games prior to his injury, James Harrison adding 5.5, and Arthur Moats contributing an additional four. Of course, 19 sacks from your team’s premiere pass-rushing position is simply not enough. Harrison and LaMarr Woodley at one point routinely contributed double digits each on their own, by way of comparison.
Can the Steelers generate more sacks, and more pressure overall, from the same cast of characters next year? Potentially. After all, Jones’ season was highly limited, and Harrison was forced to play his way into shape. Both his and Moats’ snap counts were sporadic and inconsistent, while Worilds, quite frankly, was handicapped by playing with Cam Thomas.
But it would be foolhardy to believe that you can get the same people who got you into a mess to also get you out of the mess that they created, which in this case is an inferior pass rushing productivity.
The Steelers will need to determine the value of Worilds relative to his ability to produce, and then compare that to what will be available on the open market. No doubt they will have their eyes open for pass rushers in free agency. Obviously, they could address the pass rush anywhere in the draft, as early as the first round, which would provide a situational pass-rushing option.
But with the cast of characters at hand, I feel that Keith Butler will have to get creative to induce more pressure schematically, which the Steelers have only been middling in effectiveness in doing so recently. I anticipated that the defense would be able to generate greater pressure from the interior, as well as from the safety spot, from a year ago, to supplement the outside linebackers. That may be a necessity to develop in 2015.