Breaking Down Pittsburgh Steelers' Likely Opening-Game Starting Lineup
As one of the most stable franchises in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers are traditionally in contention for a playoff berth on a yearly basis. But even the most consistent teams need to shake up their roster every now and then.
For the Steelers, back-to-back missed playoffs indicated the need for a change. Rather than a complete roster overhaul, Kevin Colbert cut some dead weight during the offseason and was active in free agency to bolster the depth on the roster.
These moves, combined with a draft class full of high-upside players, provided the Steelers with the combination of speed, power and talent necessary to get them back in the playoff picture.
Besides adding depth to the roster, the infusion of new personnel also means that there will be a handful of new players in the starting lineup. Whether it is a big-money veteran signing, a temporary stopgap or an exciting rookie ready to step in, the Steelers will have a new look in 2014.
With less than three weeks until the regular season kicks off, the starting lineup for the Pittsburgh Steelers is beginning to come into focus. Here is a preview of what the likely starting lineup will look like for the season opener.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger is the unquestioned leader of the offense, and he is poised for an MVP-caliber season. Part of the reason is the no-huddle offense that Todd Haley installed last season and allowed to grow heading into 2014.
The offense was terrific when the no-huddle attack was on full display against the Buffalo Bills on Saturday night. Roethlisberger and the offense scored touchdowns on the first two drives before being shut out on the third.
On the first two scoring drives, the Steelers had a balance of short, quick throws and big plays—highlighted by Antonio Brown’s 76-yard catch and run touchdown. It was just a sampling of what is to come this season, and Roethlisberger was pleased, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"I thought it was good," Roethlisberger said. "It's about communicating with [offensive coordinator] Todd [Haley]. He's in my ear telling me different thoughts. That's how this thing should work. I thought we did a good job. The communication is what I wanted to work on, and we didn't have any mental errors."
With Roethlisberger and Haley on the same page, it is only a matter of time before the entire offense is clicking. Once that happens, Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense could be in for their best season yet.
Starter: Le’Veon Bell
The Steelers boosted their backfield with the addition of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer this offseason, but that will not stop Le’Veon Bell from being their top running back.
Bell came into training camp in even better shape than last year. He told Mark Kaboly of TribLive Radio that he lost weight to help add an explosive element to his game. Throughout training camp and during the preseason, he has shown flashes of his added burst.
Last season, Bell set a team rookie record with 1,259 total yards from scrimmage. He achieved this while playing in only 13 games. Those numbers could be trumped if he is able to stay healthy for all 16 games.
Bell is one of the offense’s most dangerous weapons as a dual running and receiving threat. With a significant number of touches in store for him this season, Mike Tomlin will do his best to keep Bell fresh by spelling him with Blount, per Steelers.com:
We’re trying to work both guys. But at the same time we want to get them enough extended action that we know them as fatigue sets in and so playing consecutive plays is a big part of that. Both guys are going to get their share but I want both guys to have the lead dog mentality.
And in order to have that and do that you have to see them in spurts or extended period of time. But don’t read too much into it. We’re just still growing and developing in terms of our division of labor. I like both guys and both guys are going to be big components for our success.
Blount will be the perfect running back to complement Bell in the backfield, but there is no question who will get the bulk of the carries. Bell is on the verge of becoming one of the top dual threats in the league.
Starters: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore
The Steelers will use a variety of personnel groupings on offense, but the three-wide receiver set will be one that is used often. For that reason, the Steelers will have three starters on the field at wide receiver.
Brown had a breakout year in 2013 as he established himself as one of the top wide receivers in the league. He finished the year with 110 receptions for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns, but he has room to get even better.
Despite being firmly entrenched as the top receiver on the roster, Brown was one of the hardest working players in training camp. He was nearly unstoppable during practice, and his foot speed is as fast as it has ever been—as we all witnessed with his 76-yard touchdown reception against the Bills
Outside of Brown, the Steelers will have Lance Moore working out of the slot. Though he will lose reps to Dri Archer in certain packages, he does bring a wealth of experience to the team.
Moore played for eight seasons with Drew Brees in New Orleans and had a productive career with 346 receptions for 4,281 yards and 38 touchdowns. In his short time in training camp, he already developed a rapport with his new quarterback and will be a valuable option on third downs.
With two known quantities in the lineup, Markus Wheaton could be the X-factor. He has the potential to be a big-play threat, but he lacks the experience after an injury-filled rookie season in which he only had six receptions.
Wheaton had a strong training camp and looked the part of a starting receiver, but he needed to prove himself on the playing field. He gave everyone a taste of what he could do against the Bills with a beautiful corner route on a 16-yard touchdown reception from Roethlisberger. Bob Labriola of Steelers.com wrote that he was impressed with the play:
What Wheaton did in the back corner of the end zone helped make the case that he is a starting-caliber NFL receiver.
The throw from Ben Roethlisberger was a thing of beauty, and Wheaton took care of his end of the play in a fundamentally sound fashion – clean catch, two feet down, maintain possession throughout. Textbook. And Wheaton’s catch converted the first offense’s only red zone opportunity.
The receiving corps has some work to do prior to the start of the season, but the early returns show that this trio is a perfect fit for the quick-strike, no-huddle attack that the Steelers will employ this year.
Starter: Heath Miller
For two straight seasons, there were rumblings that the Steelers should take a tight end high in the draft, and for two straight seasons, they didn’t. They are clearly happy with Heath Miller and banking on him returning to his pre-ACL injury form.
Miller had 58 receptions for 593 yards in 14 games last season, but he had an unusual number of drops. Though he has not displayed his dependable hands in training camp this year, Miller appeared to be back to health and should once again be a force over the middle of the field.
Unlike other teams that are moving toward tight ends who play more like receivers, the Steelers demand that their tight ends can block. Even as he enters his 10th season, Miller still remains one of the best all-around tight ends in the league and will play a significant role in the Steelers offense.
Starters: Kelvin Beachum (LT), Ramon Foster (LG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), David DeCastro (RG), Marcus Gilbert (RT)
The performance of the offensive line was a major part of the Steelers’ turnaround last season. Now that they are healthy and working under Mike Munchak, the members of the line finally have a chance to live up to their potential.
Maurkice Pouncey, fresh off his new contract, and David DeCastro will be the foundation of the line. These two former first-round selections have All-Pro potential and will be a key—along with the dependable Ramon Foster—to the running attack.
On the outside, Kelvin Beachum will look to build upon his solid 2013 season at left tackle, while Marcus Gilbert is looking to earn a long-term contract.
This unit can have all of the potential in the world, but it means nothing if it cannot live up to it. Whether it was injuries or poor play, the offensive line has struggled over the years. Even with quality play over the second of the season last year, the line was only able to pave the way for 1,383 yards on the ground.
The Steelers sent a clear message when they hired Munchak as the offensive line coach—they need better play from the offensive line. So far, the players love what they are getting from their new coach. Beachum said, per Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
What makes him special is that he is very thorough and takes his time and explains exactly what he wants from us. There is no gray area at all. It's black and white. He's creative with some of the blocking schemes that we have. It just brings something different to the table that we didn't have.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line needed something different, and so far, the changes appear to have the Steelers on the right track. There is still work to be done, but the progress of the line is right on track. Games are won and lost in the trenches, and for the first time in years, the Steelers can win some with their offensive line.
Starters: Cam Thomas (LDE), Steve McLendon (NT), Cameron Heyward (RDE)
Not long ago, the Steelers had one of the best defensive lines in football with Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel. Now they are in a transition as a number of young players are trying to establish themselves on the defensive front.
Cameron Heyward finally earned a starting job last year when he replaced Ziggy Hood at left defensive end. However, he will not settle into that position. Instead, he will now replace Keisel on the right side of the line.
Heyward was one of the top defenders last year with 59 tackles and five sacks and will be in position to do even more damage this year. Dick LeBeau will look to Heyward to provide a steady presence against the run, yet add an element of rushing the quarterback.
Steve McLendon enters his second season as starting nose tackle. He has the ability to get to the quarterback from the interior, but he does not provide an anchor against the run like a traditional 3-4 nose tackle. His opportunities will be limited, as the Steelers will use an extra defensive back often this year.
Cam Thomas is the newcomer on the defensive line. Ideally, he will settle into the role as the top backup at defensive end and nose tackle, but for now, he is the starter at left defensive end.
The 6’4”, 330-pound Thomas will be a formidable run defender based on his sheer size alone. He will also help occupy linemen so that the athletic linebackers can fly around the field and make plays.
But Thomas will not be the starter for very long. LeBeau has been impressed with what he has seen from rookie Stephon Tuitt, per Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“He's definitely going to get a significant amount of playing time,” LeBeau said. “He's shown us a lot of athleticism for a big guy, and he's in great shape. He can run all day.”
Tuitt had a significant number of reps with the first-team defense and got the start in the preseason opener. However, the Steelers seem set on easing him into the lineup as a tackle in their nickel formation.
Starters: Jason Worilds (LOLB), Ryan Shazier (LILB), Lawrence Timmons (RILB), Jarvis Jones (ROLB)
Not long ago, Lawrence Timmons was the young linebacker among a talented group of veterans. Now Timmons leads an inexperienced group of linebackers that is generating plenty of buzz around Pittsburgh.
The Steelers need Timmons to provide a steady presence in the middle of the field where he has transitioned from “Mack” to “Buck” linebacker. He has been one of their most dependable defenders over the years and is coming off a 126-tackle, three-sack season.
Jason Worilds replaces LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker, and he has had a rather quiet training camp. He stepped in last year and had a terrific finish to the season with seven sacks in his final eight games. As long as he can match this production, Worilds will be in line for a massive contract, whether it is from the Steelers or another team.
Worilds needs a big year since Jarvis Jones remains a relatively unknown prospect. He only had one sack as a rookie and still has room to develop. He has worked with linebacker coach Joey Porter on his pass-rushing technique and has developed a nice interior move, which was on display against the New York Giants.
But the most exciting player of this unit isn’t a veteran, but rather it's first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier. He has worked with the first-team defense since the spring, and LeBeau feels comfortable with him in the lineup, per Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“He's going to start. Yeah, he's going to start,” LeBeau said. “Whether that was the situation or not (Shazier being a first-rounder), he was going to start in the NFL. … We'll try not to overload him, but he's going to start, no question about it.”
Shazier has had an excellent training camp and was outstanding in his preseason debut against the Bills. He played well on defense and on special teams and finished the game with 11 tackles and an interception, which he returned for 27 yards. His performance may have surprised some but not Tomlin, per Bob Labriola of Steelers.com:
“I thought he did some good things but not unlike what he’s done when he’s worked,” said Tomlin about Shazier. “From the instant he got here he’s proven that it’s not too big for him, so I can’t tell you that I’m surprised by his effort tonight. I’m not.”
There is room for Shazier to grow and development, but the speed and aggressiveness that he displayed in his first game was an encouraging sign. He is the type of playmaker whom this defense needs to regain its status as one of the best in the league.
Starters: Ike Taylor (CB), Cortez Allen (CB), Mike Mitchell (FS), Troy Polamalu (SS)
Cornerback play will be an area of concern all season, especially after the Steelers waited until the fifth round to draft one. Rather than add a young stud to the lineup, they felt comfortable to go with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen.
Taylor has had a solid training camp and as long as the coaches do not ask him to do too much, is still a starting caliber cornerback. He will benefit from the addition of Mike Mitchell to the secondary.
Mitchell will add an element of speed to the position as he replaces Ryan Clark. After missing a significant portion of training camp with a groin injury, he will need time to adjust to LeBeau’s scheme and to playing with Troy Polamalu.
It has not been a particularly strong start for Mitchell, who took a poor angle on Giants’ running back Rashad Jennings 73-yard touchdown run and was called for two penalties—unsportsmanlike conduct and holding. He must clean up both areas before the start of the season.
This was a problem that the Steelers had last season and one that Taylor pointed out, per Ralph N. Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“You're not going to have a top defense unless your secondary tackles,” Taylor said. “That's just the way it is because we're the last line of defense. When the front seven breaks down, it's up to the secondary to make a play. If you don't, you're going to have a long season.”
Any concerns about Polamalu’s age should have been eased after his performance on Saturday. Though he missed one tackle and had one penalty, he was running all over the field and throwing his body at offensive players in vintage Polamalu form.
Cortez Allen remains the question mark after a decent training camp. He did not show the growth expected of a player entering his fourth season. Brown typically had his way with him on passing drills, and he hasn’t been particularly impressive during the preseason.
Allen looked to be the cornerback of the future after an outstanding second season in which he had two interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. However, he was temporarily benched last season and never lived up to the potential that he displayed early in his career.
It is early yet, and Allen will get every chance to succeed, but the Steelers do not seem to be sold on his long-term future with the team. They have not offered him a contract extension and do not appear to be ready to do so. If he struggles, expect William Gay to replace him in the starting lineup.
Starters: Shaun Suisham (K), Brad Wing (P), Luke Ingram (LS), Dri Archer (KR/PR)
Coming off an outstanding 2013 season, the Steelers rewarded Shaun Suisham with a four-year contract extension. Suisham has rewarded them with an inconsistent preseason.
Suisham only missed two field goals last year on just three in 2012, but he has already missed one field goal and one extra point during this preseason. It's not a good start, but it's not one to worry about yet. As far as the short kickoffs, Tomlin wanted the coverage unit to get some work and wanted Suisham to keep the ball in play, via Steelers.com.
Brad Wing went without a challenger in training camp and looks to have a hold of the punting job—at least for the start of the year. He has averaged 40.5 yards per punt on 12 punts over two preseason games with three punts downed inside of the 20-yard line. He has long punts of 53 and 54 yards.
With Greg Warren out, the Steelers signed Luke Ingram to take over the long-snapping duties.
Tomlin: Greg Warren has a meniscus injury. Should be out about 4 weeks— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) August 14, 2014
After one preseason game, Ingram went unnoticed, which is a good sign for a long snapper. Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes that Ingram will likely “be the long snapper until veteran Greg Warren is able to return from a knee injury that is expected to keep him out one month.”
In an effort to get Archer as many touches as possible, he will handle the return duties for punts and kickoffs. Through two games, he has not had the opportunity to return any kicks and only has four yards on two punt returns.
However, given his explosive ability with the offense, it is only a matter of time before he breaks one open in the return game. Archer will have a chance to change the field position in an instant and will be a valuable weapon as a returner.