We’re having a little bit of fun here on the bye week. From best to worst, I’ll rank every Pittsburgh Steelers who has played at least 10% of the offense’s snaps in 2015. That does mean you won’t see names like Jesse James, Sammie Coates, and even Will Johnson because they haven’t met that threshold.
This grading is based off just the tape on offense, not special teams. Important to keep in mind. We’re also going to try and examine each player in a vacuum, based solely off their tape. Not making excuses, not looking at situation, just grading the player evenly based off tape. That means some players get a harsher rank even though there are circumstances that explain poorer play.
One last thing. Obviously, some players are going to have to be on the bottom of the list. It does not mean I think they are awful. There is a lot of talent on this offenses, inevitably pushing some players down. Every player has redeemable qualities and I’ve pointed that out for everyone at one point during the season. So save the hate.
Feel free to critique this list and just as importantly, make your own. I’d love to hear it.
We’ll rank the defense tomorrow.
1. Ben Roethlisberger
Listen, you could mix and match the top three in any order and it’s hard to come up with an argument against. I won’t be one to try. But for me, it’s hard not to put Big Ben at the top after getting an all too extended trailer of what life is like without him. He’s been sensational when he played, highlighted by his 379 yards, 3 TD performance off the bench against the Cleveland Browns. He did what all great QBs do – destroy weak secondaries. With him, the offense can score 30+ in any game. Without him, you’re lucky to crack the high teens.
2. Le’Veon Bell
Obviously, Bell missed the majority of the season. But as the criterita states, it’s not about how much you played but how well you played in that time period. And boy, was it stellar. He had to play without Big Ben, allowing defenses to key in on him and still ran for over 550 yards and a tick under five yards per carry. His pass protection continues to be great and though he didn’t get as much of an opportunity to show off his receiving skills, he was the best security blanket on this team.
Bell’s game-winning touchdown against the San Diego Chargers was monumental. If he doesn’t get in and the Steelers lose, they’re 5-5, and the feeling of the entire season is a lot different.
3. Antonio Brown
I love AB. You do too. That’s no argument here. Yes, he struggled without Roethilsberger and no, it’s hard to pin much of the blame on 84. I put him third for one reason. He is not a complete receiver. As an actual receiver, there might not be any one player better. But he is still a frustratingly bad blocker. It’s not like the dude has a poor work ethic – it’s up there with anyone on this team. But Bell is a complete back – run, catch, and block. So in a close one, Brown “slips” to number three. Still, give me 84 over any receiver in the league.
4. Marcus Gilbert
He was once a secret but his stellar play is recognized by everyone now. Based on my charting, he’s allowed just one sack this season and hasn’t given up one since mid-way through 2014 (granted, he did miss a couple games with an injury). His run blocking has also quietly improved and he does a fantastic job on combination blocks, chipping and working to the second level. He is in tremendous shape, sculpted like a tight end, and playing the best football of his life.
5. DeAngelo Williams
Remember, we are talking about 2015, nothing else. We’re not thinking about how much he has left or what he did in Carolina. You could argue he’s been an MVP to this team. Without him, there is no running game. Without a running game, the complexion of the Steelers’ season totally changes. The vision he’s shown is honestly as good as Le’Veon Bell’s and his pass protection is right up there, too. He’s shown an explosiveness I don’t think many expected. People haven’t doubted him way less than D-Will likes to think – and hey, whatever helps motivate him I’m all for – but his play has certainly been a surprise.
6. Heath Miller
Gotta he honest. Didn’t think I’d have Miller here two years ago. Rarely do tight ends play at such a high level this late into their careers but here we are with Miller. Though sometimes forgotten about in this offense, partially attributed to not having Big Ben in the lineup, he’s had enough big games and produced enough big plays to remind you.
Statistically, he had one of his best games of the year against the Cincinnati Bengals and whether it was in that game, taking a huge shot from George Iloka, or hauling in a pass despite getting sandwiched on the game-winning drive against the Chargers, Miller is the toughest cat on this team. His blocking, which seemed to suffer last season, has actually improved and he looks like Classic Heath.
7. Martavis Bryant
All Martavis Bryant does is score touchdowns. In 10 of 15 regular season games in his career, he’s found the end zone, including in four of five in 2015. He’s a big play threat either vertically – see last week versus the Browns – or after the catch – see his 88 yard touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals, easily the best play of his career. That combination of size and speed truly puts him in the 1% of NFL players and there is no limit for how high his ceiling could go.
Still, there’s room for growth. Like Antonio Brown, he’s a disappointingly bad blocker despite having the physical tools Brown doesn’t. Just doesn’t work like he should. He’s also had his fair share of drops, squandering some big play opportunities. His deep bomb drop against the Oakland Raiders comes to mind.
8. David DeCastro
The knock on DeCastro was that he needed to improve in pass protection and overall, he has. There have still been blips, which shoves him down slightly on the list behind some very talented folks, but I’ve been happy with him and his sack totals are low. Though he has had some issues sticking to his blocks in the run game, the Counter OF the Steelers love to run is made possible because of 66. I don’t know if he’ll ever become an elite guy, if you care about such terms, but he’ll be very, very good for a long time.
9, Ramon Foster
Foster gets a lot of passive-aggressive criticism. There are no thrashing articles written about him like there is about, say, Antwon Blake, but his name accompanies this constant undertone of slighting him. A “he’s good but I hope the team upgrades next year” sort of feel. Foster has allowed only two sacks while only allowing three penalties. He’s been a fine run blocker and plays hard to the whistle. And he’s more athletic than people give him credit for. There haven’t been many instances where the Steelers have used a zone scheme and I thought, “if only Foster was a better athlete.”
He’s developed a well-rounded game with few critical flaws and has responded reasonably well to working with a left tackle that has never played a down in the NFL, an overlooked challenge and stress on a veteran guard who was so used to playing with Kelvin Beachum.
10. Kelvin Beachum
Still a big fan of Beachum and am devastated at his season-ending torn ACL but even when healthy, his play wasn’t great this year. He got off to an awful start in pass protection, allowing two sacks early in the year and looking very un-Beachum like. He predictably got better over the next couple games and didn’t allow another sack but on a shortened season, it’s hard to ignore the chunk of below average play.
11. Darrius Heyward-Bey
DHB helped smooth over the absence of Bryant through the first four games. It was still a little rocky with Heyward-Bey, if he catches that touchdown against the New England Patriots, maybe there’s a chance the Steelers win, but overall, his play was positive. He is the best blocker on this team and it isn’t even close. His ability to stalk corners and crack safeties have underratedly helped spring some big runs this season. We’re not counting special team’s performance in this but he’s an ace player and a multi-phase guy which, as a lover of special teams demons (Hi Chidi Iwuoma!), you know I dig it.
12. Matt Spaeth
Spaeth isn’t great. He’s a good blocker and that’s about it. But the thing that separates him from everyone else below on the list is that there isn’t much bad you can say about him. Maybe that’s a product of playing fewer snaps and being asked to do less, but his play is consistent and what the team has asked from him.
13. Cody Wallace
Wallace gets beaten up often here. There’s a lot of good reason for it but to be fair, his play has gotten better. He hasn’t given up a sack over the last month after allowing a whopping 4.5 in the first several weeks. He is a feisty run blocker and shown brief moments of athleticism in space, but for a guy who is lauded as a technician, I see a lot of bad technique. He’s on the ground on a ton, lunges to catch stunts in pass protection along with a limited amount of physical tools to work with. He’s average, and when you’re talking about a backup center, that’s ok, but we aren’t grading on the curve here.
14. Markus Wheaton
Wheaton hasn’t been bad this year, despite what the dreadful numbers would suggest. He’s doing the little things well on tape – he’s a better route runner and is doing a better job after the catch, his biggest fault in 2014. He gives his best as a run blocker and works his tail off every game. Still, production matters above all else and Wheaton has roughly a quarter of what most of us figured he’d enjoy in 2015. Hard to put him any higher and some might have him even lower.
15. Roosevelt Nix
Nix has become a fan favorite and is one of the team’s feel-good stories on the season. He’s been an incredible special teamer, showing remarkable closing speed for a fullback. Nix is a power guy and at his best when asked to plow straight ahead. Still, he’s a raw guy playing FB in meaningful games for the first time. He will struggle to stay on his blocks and has to keep his head up, seeing what he hits, much more consistently. He offers little as a receiver, too, and is a specialty guy. That isn’t inherently terrible, every team needs role/niche players, but he’s a guy with room to grow. Easy to fall in love with him and his story, and I’m right there with you, but he isn’t as good as the persona indicates.
16. Landry Jones
If we considered the situation, Jones would probably get an uptick here. But we’re looking at this in a vacuum. There’s no doubt Jones has blown away everyone’s expectations and I’m comfortable with him being the Steelers’ backup moving forward – I’d like to think the team feels the same way. But his start against the Kansas City Chiefs was only average, especially when you pick through the tape. The negatives pop up more. He saved the day against the Arizona Cardinals, but watching him against a prepared defense, as he did vs the Chiefs, gave me a better read for his performance. There are a lot of aspects to the game that aren’t tangible, and I think Jones leads and controls the huddle well, but his play would be considered slightly below average this year.
17. Alejandro Villanueva
Villanueva is another guy I, and everyone else on the planet, loves. And as I’ve said before, he has an incredible story, is a better human than 99% of us, and his service to protect this country is infinitely more important than anything else. As you’d expect, he has shown gradual improvement. Perspective is key – he is back on the offensive line for the first time since his junior year in college and seeing that time against the best players in the world. Treat him like a raw rookie and realize it isn’t a seamless transition.
Still, we’re not here to excuse, just to evaluate. And his play has been downright bad at times this season. A lot of it has been above the shoulders like when the Bengals beat him on the same stunt four times in the first half. He’s also allowed 3.5 sacks based on my charting. There is a mouth-watering amount of physical talent here. He has the ability to chop down edge rushers and fling them to their feet, whether it was a stud in Allen Bailey or top pass rusher like Aldon Smith. Villanueva just dwarfs them. Where he is now isn’t where he is always be, which is good, because his play has been below average.
18. Mike Vick
You…probably guessed this. Vick was as bad as it gets at the position, even if the circumstances around him weren’t ideal. He struggled to hit his checkdown, danced around the pocket too much, and the playcalling reflected a guy who was very limited in what he could do. Aside from the game-winning series vs San Diego, Vick did nothing, and hamstrung one of the most high-octane offenses in the league. He’s had a unique career. But it’s time to get onto life’s work.