PITTSBURGH – There are 8-8 seasons. Then, there are 8-8 seasons.
Coming out of the 2012 season, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said there would be changes with a team that finished 8-8, losing five of its final seven games.
The Steelers have a different feeling about their 8-8 record this season.
After losing their first four games and six of the first eight, the Steelers went 6-2 in the second half, the best record in the AFC over that period and second in the NFL to Carolina’s 7-1.
“There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about what transpired when you look at it over the course of the season,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
What went right
Several young players emerged as potential stars, including defensive end Cameron Heyward, linebacker Jason Worilds, guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell.
None of that group played a big role for the Steelers last year, but all took turns starring this year.
Heyward, a 2011 first-round draft pick, moved into the starting lineup for good after the 0-4 start. He finished the season with six sacks, 34 hurries and batted down five passes at the line of scrimmage. Only Houston’s J.J. Watt, with six, had more pass deflections among 3-4 defensive ends.
As good as Heyward was, Worilds might have been better. Despite sharing time with rookie Jarvis Jones for nearly half the season and missing the regular season finale against Cleveland with an abdominal injury, Worilds led all 3-4 outside linebackers with 21 quarterback hits, six more than the next closest player.
Worilds, a 2010 second-round draft pick, led the Steelers with eight sacks, and had 54 tackles with two forced fumbles.
DeCastro drew the ire of fans for accidentally injuring center Maurkice Pouncey’s knee and ending his season on Pittsburgh’s opening drive of the regular season. But the 2012 first-round draft pick rebounded to become the team’s best run blocker. He only allowed two sacks and had just two penalties.
DeCastro was part of a line that improved as the season wore on. Like DeCastro, left guard Ramon Foster allowed just two sacks and had two penalties. Kelvin Beachum replaced Mike Adams at left tackle after the 0-4 start and solidified that position.
“He did a very good job of representing what he’s capable of, but I’ll expect him to continue to improve,” said Tomlin. “I will not allow him to have an opportunity to exhale or seek comfort in regards to that. He’s got a big offseason and training camp ahead of him, but he’s in pretty decent position from that regard.”
As a group, the line allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked just seven times in the final seven games.
Bell also was part of that. The rookie missed the first three games of the regular season after suffering a foot injury in the second preseason game. The second-round draft pick got off to a slow start, gaining just 282 yards rushing in his first five games. But he gained 578 yards in the final eight games.
Bell also had 45 receptions – just six behind John L. Williams’ team-record for a running back – for 399 yards, giving him 1,259 yards from scrimmage, a total that broke Franco Harris’ record for a rookie running back set in 1972.
In addition to their breakout stars, the Steelers got their usual solid seasons from Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown – who won his second team MVP award in three seasons – and safety Troy Polamalu.
After the line play adjusted to losing Pouncey, offensive coordinator Todd Haley began allowing Roethlisberger to run the offense more from a no-huddle look – something the quarterback had long pushed for.
Roethlisberger responded by throwing for 4,261 yards and 28 touchdowns, the second-best totals in team history, and the Steelers scored 20 or more points in their final nine games, their longest such streak since 2002. Roethlisberger also played every snap for the first time in his 10-year career.
Brown earned his second Pro Bowl berth setting a team record with 1,499 yards receiving and finishing with 110 receptions – the second most in team history – and a career-high eight touchdowns. He ranked second the NFL in receptions and receiving yardage and third in the league in punt return average.
Polamalu, meanwhile, led all defensive backs with five forced fumbles and had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. He played in all 16 games.
What went wrong
The Steelers scored 19 points in their first two games, then allowed 74 points in their next two to fall to 0-4.
The Steelers turned the ball over 11 times in those first four games, with Roethlisberger accounting for nine of those giveaways with fumbles and interceptions.
Pittsburgh went 8-4 after that start, but needed one more victory – or a correct call by the officials on two separate plays in the Kansas City-San Diego game in Week 17 – to get into the playoffs.
The biggest issue was big plays.
The defense allowed an astounding five runs of 40 or more yards and 12 passes of at least that length. The defense was better in the second half, but still had some letdowns, most notably a pair of long runs allowed in a 34-28 loss to Miami at Heinz Field Dec. 8, that helped keep the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Injuries also played a factor. The Steelers lost inside linebacker Larry Foote and Pouncey for the season in Week 1. The Steelers ended the season with 11 players on injured reserve, including Pouncey’s replacement, Fernando Velasco, and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
The run defense also was not up to its usual stout standards. Pittsburgh allowed 115.6 yards rushing per game and 4.3 yards per carry and opponents scored 18 rushing touchdowns.
The rushing yards per game and average per carry were the team’s worst since 1999, while the rushing touchdowns allowed were the most since the Steelers gave up 20 during a 5-11 season in 1988.
The rushing offense wasn’t much better. Despite Bell’s surge, Pittsburgh averaged 74 yards per game in the first half of the season and 99 yards in the second. The 84.2-yard average for the season was Pittsburgh’s worst since the 1970 NFL merger. And its 3.5 yards-per-carry average was identical in the first and second half of the season.
It helped cost offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. his job.
There also were some issues in the kicking game, particularly with the punters.
Drew Butler, the team’s punter in 2012, was released just before the opening of the regular season and replaced by Zoltan Mesko, a Patriots castoff. Mesko was inconsistent and had just three of his 34 punts downed inside the 20.
He was replaced at midseason by Mat McBriar, who also dealt with inconsistencies. McBriar did, however, place 13 of 40 punts inside the 20.
Where do they go from here?
The No. 1 priority for the Steelers in this offseason is to re-sign Worilds.
After allowing wide receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis to leave as free agents following last season because they couldn’t afford to sign them, the Steelers aren’t about to let another good young talent get away.
The problem is the Steelers are currently projected to be about $13 million over the 2014 estimated salary cap, including dead money from players already released and workout bonuses.
The Steelers also will need an additional $5.8 million to sign their draft picks and additional money for the practice squad, emergencies, etc. So they’ll need between $18 and $20 million in cap space.
The first order of business will be clearing the cap space needed to be compliant by March 11, when the new fiscal year begins.
Releasing offensive tackle Levi Brown will account for $6.25 million and is an easy fix. Brown never played a down for the Steelers after being acquired via a trade for a conditional pick with Arizona. Since Brown met none of the conditions of the trade, no pick will be exchanged.
Foote, who spent most of this season on injured reserve, could be released at a savings of $1.17 million.
So where will the rest of the money come from?
An extension to Roethlisberger could net the team $3 to $4 million in cap savings for 2014 and seems to be a no-brainer. And simple restructures in the deals of Brown and linebacker Lawrence Timmons could create an additional $8 million in cap space.
The Steelers could ask cornerback Ike Taylor to take a paycut on the $7 million salary he is scheduled to earn in 2014. As happened in 2013 with James Harrison, the Steelers must also be prepared to release Taylor if he refuses.
Placing the franchise tag on Worilds would cost $10.9 million and would keep the linebacker from bolting in free agency. But it might be too high a cost for the Steelers. They might be forced to release another veteran outright to use the tag and hope they can work out a new deal with Worilds to lower that total.
One of the biggest issues facing the Steelers is what to do with Woodley.
Woodley has missed time with injuries in each of the past three seasons and is scheduled to make $13.5 million. If the Steelers re-sign Worilds, they will release Woodley.
But they likely won’t be able to make that move until after June 1, at which time they can free up $8 million with the other $5.3 million being carried over to 2015. Releasing Woodley prior to June 1 means the Steelers would take a full $14 million hit against their cap next season.
But the Steelers will have to carry Woodley’s $13.5 million salary against their cap until his June 1 release.
The Steelers also need to figure out ways to re-sign some of their own free agents.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will want more than a minimum deal, as will safety Ryan Clark. Neither is expected to return.
But the Steelers might be able to work out minimum deals with wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who led the team with 10 touchdown catches, running back Jonathan Dwyer, long snapper Greg Warren, defensive lineman Al Woods and offensive lineman Guy Whimper.
Velasco would have required a decent contract offer given his play this season, but after suffering an Achilles tendon injury late in the year, could be re-signed for a minimum deal prior to training camp. If Velasco gets another offer or the team feels he’s not progressing with his rehab, Cody Wallace could be re-signed.
With Clark gone, the Steelers will look to add a veteran at free safety. Will Allen could fill that role if re-signed, or cornerback William Gay could be moved to that spot.