Pittsburgh Steelers: Midseason Report Cards for Each Positional Unit
It's hard to look back and not try to see the good in many of these units, but overall, when you are staring down a season like this, you have to keep the perspective that it is hard to win in the NFL. And it's especially hard to win when you have one or two units that play so poorly they drag down the rest.
Another important fact to keep in mind is that while a strong individual performance can impress, these grades are for the units as a whole. It's like grading a group project in a high school social studies class. One or two students do their very best, but the slackers of the group drag down the group's grade.
As I have gone back over all the Steelers' games to this point, the word that keeps coming up for me is "average." This is a very average team in all three phases. There are above-average players, and even some units, but when you toss them all together and spit out a mean, it's very much an average football team that we see every week.
With that, it's time for the midseason report cards for each positional unit.
*All stats provided by Pro Football Reference unless specified otherwise.
Once again, the burden of the Steelers offense falls upon the broad shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. On the season, Roethlisberger has thrown for 1,930 yards with a 66.3 percent completion percentage and an 87.2 quarterback rating. These are all very good numbers, and they should be applauded.
The downside is that Roethlisberger has been responsible for nine turnovers and only eight touchdowns. Granted, not all of those turnovers were his fault, but in the final analysis, they all fall on the leader of this offense.
I don't grade Roethlisberger as low as many, mainly because I put so much of the onus of this team's struggles on the offensive line, but I can see where the vitriol toward him comes from.
While there is hope for the future with running back Le'Veon Bell in the backfield, up to this point, the running back group as a whole has underperformed.
Again, how much of this falls on the running backs, and how much of it falls on the offensive line?
For this one, I spread the blame a little more evenly. I continue to contend that as goes the offensive line, so goes the offense, but upon closer review, these running backs have missed holes and tried to do things with their games they are simply not capable of.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
I lump all the pass-catchers in this group together for two reasons. First, the role of the Steelers' tight ends this season has been almost exclusively in the passing game. Second, the only tight end who has played any sort of role in the offense has been Heath Miller.
Roethlisberger has focused his attention on four primary targets thus far in the season. Wide receivers Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders, along with Miller, have caught 129 of Roethlisberger's 172 completions and have accounted for 1,579 of Roethlisberger's 1,930 passing yards.
On the whole, this has been a very strong foursome. It is an undersized group and one that's not particularly physical. However, they make up for that with exceptional speed and quickness.
Oh boy, here is that group of slackers in the back of the room.
I acknowledge that this team has been ravaged by injuries in the first half of the season. Just as an example, in this past Sunday's game, the Steelers dressed eight offensive linemen and had three go down with injury, leaving no depth on the bench at the end of the game.
But this is the NFL, and that means the next man up. So far, with the exception of guard David DeCastro and center Fernando Velasco, this group has been among the worst in the entire NFL. It boggles the mind to think just how much more efficient this offense could be if this group could just be average. Not great, just average. However, it is not.
This unit is made up of a mismatched group of players, few of which are suited for the Steelers' scheme. This is a group in dire need of a makeover in the offseason.
Most NFL games are won in the trenches. So it is disheartening, to say the least, that a group like this one has played so well this year with so little to show for it. The Steelers essentially use a four-man rotation of true defensive linemen, sliding players in and out, depending on the formation.
This group is comprised of defensive ends Brett Keisel, Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood. It also includes nose tackle Steve McLendon.
I use the term "true defensive linemen" because, in many cases, these ends slide inside as tackles and outside linebackers slide up to play as defensive ends.
Nevertheless, overall, this group has been very solid, doing whatever it has been asked to do. A massive nose tackle is a must for next season, but this group is more than holding its own.
Again, this is a group that has had its moments, and it has some real stars, but it's the lapses that seem to garner all the attention.
First, the good news: Lawrence Timmons is one of the best defensive players in the league. However, for as great as he's played this year, averaging around eight tackles per game, he is not playing anywhere close to his potential. And that is the fault of the scheme. Timmons is being asked to drop into coverage more often than not and is missing out on plays he could be making.
Next to Timmons on the inside is rookie Vince Williams. Williams only has three starts on the season, but it appears he is entrenched as the starter going forward. He's an athletic and instinctive player who is learning on the fly and has displayed some growing pains.
The outside linebackers have underwhelmed so far, and even with LaMarr Woodley having five sacks, this threesome of Woodley, Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones who should be playing much better.
Overall, this was a group I expected big things out of this year, and at the halfway point, it hasn't delivered.
If this grade was to be assigned only to the top cornerback, Ike Taylor would be getting something much higher on his own. For the bulk of the season, Taylor has been locked up on the opponent's best wide receiver and has more than held his own.
The rest of his cornerback teammates have been more up and down. William Gay returned to the team as a free agent and has brought a physical presence to the position, especially in the run game.
Other top cornerbacks, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, have been in and out of the lineup, with the emphasis on "out." In fact, both have been replaced at one point or another by rookie safety Shamarko Thomas on the depth chart.
In the final analysis, this is another very average unit that collectively has not performed up to its talent.
Just when everyone thought Troy Polamalu was done, he returned healthy and ready to play. He is third on the team in tackles with 55 and has again become the disruptive force of nature opposing offenses must account for. He's not as fast as he has been, but his football IQ is so superior he more than makes up for it.
On the other hand, Ryan Clark has become a compiler of stats who spent the first half of the season missing more assignments than not. It could be time for rookie Shamarko Thomas to start stealing reps from Clark if not for the fact the Steelers are so thin at cornerback he is needed elsewhere.
Prior to Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders, these grades were going to be pretty good. However, kicker Shaun Suisham and punter Zoltan Mesko fell on their faces.
Mesko has been pretty up and down for much of the year, but Suisham has been money all year. Even with costing them a win this week, Suisham has been so good all season. This past week's lapse could be an outlier.
Mesko, on the other hand, could find himself out of work this week if the Steelers can find a viable replacement.
Return and coverage teams have been solid, albeit not spectacular. Sometimes, it is less about what they did and more about what they didn't, and the lack of big plays for or against these units makes their play a wash to this point.
Grade: B (Mesko can thank Suisham for this one)
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