Pittsburgh’s Goin’ To The Super Bowl?

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AP photo

“For some context on the Steelers injuries in 2015, Pittsburgh placed 25 players on injured reserve from May 2015 through the Super Bowl. Only the Giants and Ravens had more. The Steelers recorded 124 instances where a player appeared on an injury report, which isn’t all that bad (24th league wide), but when the Steelers lost players, they lost Pro Bowlers (Maurkice Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell, etc).”

Thus reads a recent tweet by Jeremy Fowler of ESPN. (It refused to embed, or else I would have done so.)

It is interesting to compare it with Bob Labriola’s wish for this coming season, as he expressed in a recent “Asked and Answered” column. When asked who, of all the players in the league, he would want to add to the 2016 Steelers, he said:

The temptation might be to say to add an offensive superstar to the mix, such as Todd Gurley to a backfield already containing Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, or a receiver such as Julio Jones or A.J. Green or Brandon Marshall to pair with Antonio Brown… [But] rather than mess with the chemistry and the selflessness the Steelers have created in this locker room, for offense, all I want is for everybody to stay healthy all season. Everybody. All of the starters and all of the backups, and I’ll take my chances with that group.

Ivan Cole and I had an actual face-to-face meeting on Thursday to discuss various projects we are involved with and just catch up. During the course of the conversation we discussed last year’s team, and he  pointed out that it is easy to forget that Maurkice Pouncey missed the entire season last year. Furthermore, the left tackle position was manned by a guy who was a practice squad defensive end a few years before and had essentially no game snaps at left tackle prior to leaping into the breach. And yet overall the offensive line performed well.

According to Pro Football Focus, Pouncey’s replacement, Cody Wallace, was the worst center in the history of football. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. But the grade they gave him was 33.9 out of a possible 100, putting him at No. 35 out of 39 ranked centers. By contrast, their highest-rated center, Travis Frederick of the Cowboys, received a grade of 91.3. Alejandro Villanueva wasn’t quite as bad as Cody Wallace by their determination—he received a grade of 42.7, putting him at No. 51 out of 77 ranked tackles. (They put right and left tackles together to rank them.) Cleveland’s Joe Thomas, long a top tackle in the league, was 2015’s No. 1, with a grade of 94.5.

Imagine how good the line would have been with Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum manning their respective positions for the season. Beachum received a grade of 79.4 for his six games, although it wasn’t enough snaps for him to be ranked. This score would have placed him at No. 20.

In retrospect, the silver lining to this particular black cloud is that Villanueva has gotten a great deal of valuable experience. And since the Steelers couldn’t afford to keep Beachum, replacing him with a draft pick, or an inexperienced Villanueva this season, would have been starting from square one.

This valuable experience, assuming Villanueva wins the job, is going to help out the entire left side of the line, because Ramon Foster spent a lot of his attention and energy assisting Villanueva, especially in the early going.

Furthermore, it was generally necessary to put an extra tight end on the left side to help Villanueva out. It’s not that he’s incapable—it’s just a really difficult position to throw a greenhorn into. And if Cody Wallace was as ineffective in the middle as PFF thinks he was, this would also create additional pressure on Foster.

And there’s no getting around it—Pouncey is one of the most athletic centers in the NFL, and Wallace is definitely not. So some of the schemes designed for a highly athletic line undoubtedly had to be scrapped after Pouncey went down, and any hope of using them further into the season presumably died with Beachum’s injury in Week 6. I would guess the scheme was simplified as much as possible once Beachum went down. At least Wallace had a reasonable amount of experience, as he replaced Pouncey for parts of the two previous years.

Although PFF doesn’t rank offensive lines as a whole, Football Outsiders does, and they ranked the Pittsburgh line at No. 8. The No. 1 line was that of the Bengals. A quick check shows that Russell Bodine, their center, took every single snap for the entire season, including the playoffs, as did Andrew Whitworth at left tackle. At right tackle the very veteran Eric Winston played most of the snaps, although they worked in the rehabbing 2015 first round draft pick Cedric Ogbuelhi at one point. Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling played essentially every snap at guard. Must be nice.

As Ivan and I pondered the number and severity of the injuries and the hidden depth they revealed, we couldn’t help but feel a perhaps characteristic surge of optimism. After all, Ivan and I both prefer to accentuate the positive.

Certainly there are injuries which could derail the entire 2016 season. A major, season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger would do that, almost without question, no matter who the backups are. Yet another early exit for Le’Veon Bell would, at the very least, end any hopes he might have of getting $15 million per year in a new contract from anybody, much less the Steelers.

However, as we saw last season, DeAngelo Williams, while he isn’t Bell, is a more than capable back, and Ivan feels that Fitzgerald Toussaint, now that he has been through a Trial By Bengals, should be a reasonable backup/relief back to Williams.

A major injury to Antonio Brown would be a first. He has developed the knack of taking care of himself, other than from random and unpredictable hits from Vontaze Burfict. Ivan suggested perhaps a one-game rental of Willie Colon would be in order for the second Bengals game, but neither of us are sure this is possible.

The tight end situation is interesting. According to PFF, despite his limited snaps Ladarius Green ranked considerably better than our beloved Heath Miller—No. 16, as compared to No. 31. I had a look at the Football Outsiders ranking of tight ends, and they also had Green at No. 16, but Miller at No. 21. The truth is perhaps somewhere in between. Much as I loved Heath, I think it is fair to say that the TE position hasn’t been downgraded.

In fact, Ivan feels it is possible that the replacement for what Martavis Bryant brought to the offense will come not so much from Sammie Coates but from Green, who, he pointed out, ran a 4.53 40 time at the Combine (compared to a 4.42 for Bryant.) For that matter, Coates ran a 4.43, and in his NFL combine profile, the player he was considered the most like was, guess who, Martavis Bryant. So while the loss of Bryant shouldn’t be discounted, it seems there are at least two plausible substitutes, one of whom at least can scarcely be called “raw” or inexperienced.

The defense still has a number of question marks, of course. However, they were definitely on the upswing last season. There has been a lot more movement than on the offense, what with the free agent losses, and there is a lot of youth. This is both the good and the bad news.

But we both feel there are some players poised to really turn some heads this coming season. Number one on both our lips is Ryan Shazier, with the usual proviso that he stay healthy. Ivan also believes Ross Cockrell will possibly take a big leap, and pointed out he began the season not knowing much at all about the playbook. I had forgotten this, but he didn’t even sign with the Steelers until September 6th. Mike Mitchell played well, and Robert Golden seemingly upped his game a notch. Bud Dupree made great strides as the end of the season approached in 2015.  Both Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt were highly regarded last season, and Tuitt was just chosen by Football Outsiders as the Steelers’ most underrated player:

Cameron Heyward gets the attention up front, but Tuitt really came on last season, with 6.5 sacks, five hits and 19.5 hurries — along with 40 run tackles — all in just 14 games. He’s a player to watch this season

All of this is highly speculative, but we’re not the only ones speculating. At least one general NFL site believes that the next Super Bowl will be a rematch of the Steelers and Seahawks, with the Steelers winning it. PFF just published their Top 101 NFL players, rated not merely for their play last season but for what the author believes they can do going forward. Antonio Brown was No. 2, Le’Veon Bell was No. 10, and Ben was No. 21. Out of every player and position in the league.

After all, speculation is all we have at this time of year. Well, speculation and baseball. So let’s go Pirates, and hurry up, training camp. It can’t come soon enough.

4 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Good health for the Steelers is bad news for the rest of the league. Goddell will probably fine the team if they don’t take enough injuries to make it fair. 😉

    Like

  • If they stay healthy they may be one of most feared teams this league has seen in a while. An offense with a top quarterback, running back and receiver behind a top offensive line. An improving defense that can afford to play aggressively and opportunistically knowing the offensive has their back. Kickers that can control and take advantage of field position. Quality depth pretty much everywhere. What’s not to like.

    Like

  • Steelers go 19-0 and win the Super Bowl 🙂

    Like

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