Steelers ‘X’ Factors for 2016: Offense

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys

Matthew Emmons—USA Today Sports

by Ivan Cole

Now that the group of players who will be auditioning for roles in the 2016 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is largely set I thought I might amuse myself by making some educated guesses as to which ones may make the difference in a championship run.

But I wanted to move beyond the ‘Yeah, duh,’ kind of selections like Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown. Too easy, too obvious and maybe not entirely accurate. Instead I wanted to take a shot at those players who may currently be flying under the radar. So my rules here are as follows:

  • The players I select could be in the conversation as key factors in the team’s success, but are probably not at this time.
  • They can be anyone from established superstars to non-drafted newcomers (admittedly a tougher call, but a good part of the fun).

This exercise is undertaken with the understanding that injuries and unanticipated personnel moves could radically alter the assumptions and landscape of the discussion, and that the conversation will evolve as the season progresses and more information is forthcoming.

Of course, all are invited to chime in with your ideas as well.

Offensive Line

Maurkice Pouncey. Ranking right up there with the notion of converting Ryan Shazier to a safety is the idea among some in Steelers Nation that Pouncey is a marginal, if not insignificant, contributor to the Steelers’ offense. While Cody Wallace did a wonderful job being the next man up, having one who is in the conversation as perhaps the best in the business will make a difference.

Has anyone considered the possibility that his injury in the 2010 AFCCG may have been a contributing factor to the team’s loss in the Super Bowl? The offensive line has established itself as one of the best in the league even without Pouncey. Most will concern themselves with the situation at left tackle. Villanueva is still raw and could potentially make some significant leaps. Ryan Harris is starter from a Super Bowl champion who could supplant him. And Jerald Hawkins is a rookie with a blank slate that we would love to fill with our optimistic fantasies.

But, make no mistake, Pouncey is the best of an excellent group of linemen—the unquestioned leader of that group, as well as one of the top overall team leaders. His reinsertion with, now, likely Pro Bowlers David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert on the right side will almost certainly make this the best offensive line in football and a significant upgrade from last year’s unit.

 

Tight End

Ladarius Green. Let’s think a little out of the box with the replacement of Heath Miller and the state of the tight end position. We have moved from Miller, Spaeth and Will Johnson as a tight end/fullback hybrid. Now we have Spaeth, Jessie James and Green as a tight end/wide receiver hybrid. With his height and speed, we may be looking in the wrong room for the player best suited to fill the role vacated by Martavis Bryant. What Ben and Todd Haley might be able to do with that package along with AB, Le’Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton and whatever can be kicked in by DeAngelo Williams, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, etc, etc, etc…

We can dream can’t we?

Quarterback

Bruce Gradkowski. Consider the possible difference of substituting Gradkowski for Landry Jones, and even in a couple of cases, Michael Vick last season. Maybe a division championship, a higher playoff seed, a Super Bowl appearance. No one replaces Ben, but he is a better spare part if and when he might be needed.

Running back

Cameron Stingily. If they remain reasonably healthy then the running back situation is in as good a shape as it has been since 2005 (Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley) at least. Nothing need be said about Bell and Williams. And let’s remember what Fitz Toussaint brought to the table in the playoffs before the fumble. Somebody sees something in Stingily. He may be the piece that rounds this group out without any new additions.

 

Wide Receiver

Canaan Severin. Almost every year there is a super X Factor out there—someone who comes from left field and make a big contribution. I will stick my neck out for now and pick the big UDFA receiver from Virginia. Just a feeling.

Special teams

Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry. Shaun Suisham and Brad Wing did a pretty good job of bring some stability to the kicking game that has rarely been the case with Pittsburgh. Boswell and Berry have the potential to top that. Boswell has a stronger leg and does not sacrifice accuracy. Berry has similar attributes of strength and precision. Steadiness in the kicking game can so often make the difference between winning and losing.

The defense will be covered in Part II.

8 comments

  • So when did the Steelers O line become such a great unit? I’ve been following less closely for a few years now, and it’s hard to shake the old assumption that the O line is a sieve…

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    • it started to become better with the addition of two first round picks and a second round pick, and it finally came together with the addition of coach who is in the hall of fame. Mike Munchak is the biggest reason that it all came together.

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    • I would think part of the proof would be in the difference in how the Steelers handled Denver’s defensive surge in their two meetings compared to how Brady and Pats and Cam Newton and Carolina fared in comparison. Hardly a ‘sieve’, and that was without two of its best players (Pouncey and Beachum) and a left tackle whose experience at the position was comparatively embryonic.

      We have become so accustomed to dissing the O line and expecting less when change comes it may be hard to see because of our low expectations.

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  • Severin put up good numbers at UVa with a QB situation that makes the Browns look stable.

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    • Wexall posted some video of the rookie minicamp and Severin looked really good. I wonder if the knock on him is that he has some of the same health issues (sickle cell trait) as Ryan Clark?

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      • Quite possibly. I would bet teams in the AFC West took him off their boards knowing there is a chance can never play in Denver.

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      • He’s also not much of an athlete, and his stats are only impressive when you dig into the situation there. (like how much they pass to RBs, and how he had almost 50% of WR + TE catches for the team. He also made some highlight reel grabs but doesn’t have the athleticism to be that Dez Bryant kind of NFL receiver. He’s a possession receiver that didn’t collect enough stats.

        He also admitted he struggled to see the field because before he was challenged by a coach and found out more about his condition and changed his diet and workouts to overcome his sickle cell he couldn’t finish practices. His team made allowances for him even afterwards, because he tired out fast. Drafting a player who struggles at collegiate conditioning for medical reasons, well that just isn’t likely. The Steelers know their way around it though, and I doubt he’ll be stuck eating chicken and greens he cooked on his George Foreman grill with the Steelers.

        Even with that problem out of the way and his team situation accounted for he’s still a bit of a long shot, as he wasn’t invited to the combine and pulled a hamstring working out for his pro day, so there are no numbers on him at all.

        His tape shows he isn’t fast. His upside is Anquan Boldin, but there aren’t many players like him in the NFL, because they have such small margin for error.

        He has the talent though, it is just a question of if he can overcome his medical trait and what he lacks physically.

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        • Thanks for the great background info. I will be watching him at camp with interest. The question is, can he sufficiently overcome the physical limitations (Ryan Clark clearly did, other than Denver of course) and use the mental part of the game to substitute for the other missing components?

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