PITTSBURGH – There are few things worse than being average for sports teams.
Great, or even good, teams draw plenty of attention for their superior play. Awful teams draw interest because everyone wants to see the train wreck.
But average? Average is boring. Average is a bowl of oatmeal. It fills your stomach, but you find yourself wanting more.
That’s the issue facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have put together back-to-back 8-8, non-playoff seasons as it has turned one of the oldest rosters into one that is among the youngest in the NFL.
The team has avoided the embarrassment of, say, a 4-12 season, but the 8-8 seasons haven’t sat well with the Steelers.
“This is Pittsburgh,” said cornerback William Gay. “We don’t want 8-8. We want to compete for Super Bowls. We don’t accept 8-8.”
Because of that, the Steelers again experienced a great deal of turnover. They went into 2013 with 20 players who were not on the roster at the beginning of the previous season.
They’ll head into this season with a similar number. The difference is this time around, the turnover is coming in a different form.
Many of last year’s new faces were players who hadn’t proven much in the NFL. This year, the Steelers were much more active in free agency, bringing in players who weren’t necessarily going to start but were going to provide veteran depth.
Mike Mitchell was signed to replace Ryan Clark at free safety, Cam Thomas was added to help ease the loss of Ziggy Hood at defensive end, and Lance Moore was signed to give the team a No. 3 receiving option after Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery departed in free agency.
Running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Arthur Moats and cornerback Brice McCain were signed as key backups.
With high expectations for its 2013 rookie class, most notably linebacker Jarvis Jones, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Markus Wheaton, and added help arriving in the 2014 draft class, which includes linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, running back/wide receiver Dri Archer and wide receiver Martavis Bryant, the Steelers feel they’ve added enough to contend for a postseason spot again.
“We’re a much younger team, and I think the success of this team will be determined by the pace at which the young group develops; not only this year’s draft class, but last year’s draft class,” said general manager Kevin Colbert. “We expect more from Jarvis Jones. We expect more from Le’Veon Bell. We expect more from Markus Wheaton. If they progress like we expect, then in addition to this year’s class, we might have something.”
The key, as it has been for the past decade, will be the play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback took every snap for the first time in his career last year and responded with one of his better seasons, throwing for 4,261 yards with 28 touchdown passes, both of which ranked as the second-best totals of his career.
Roethlisberger’s strong play helped the Steelers rebound from a horrific 0-4 start to win eight of their final 12 games, including a 6-2 record in the second half.
Improvement from Bell helped. Bell missed the first three games of the season with a foot injury, but returned to set a Steelers’ rookie record with 1,259 total yards.
Adding the 250-pound Blount and the speedy Archer, who turned in the fastest time at the NFL combine earlier this year, the Steelers feel they have a group of running backs that will enable them to run the ball better than they did last season, when their 86.4 yards per game ranked 27th in the league.
“We’ve got to be more efficient running the football,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “And I think we will be. All of those backs have looked good. We like what we have there.”
At wide receiver, Wheaton and Moore will be counted on to help replace the production of Sanders and Cotchery, who combined for 113 receptions, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdown receptions last season.
But team MVP Antonio Brown, who finished second in the NFL in receptions (110) and yardage (1,499) returns, as well as tight end Heath Miller, who had 58 receptions for 598 yards, despite missing the first two games.
The offense, which averaged nearly 27 points over the final 12 games last season, also will celebrate the return of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered a season-ending knee injury just eight plays into the opener in 2013.
The rest of the line returns intact and hopes to build on a season in which it allowed Roethlisberger to be sacked just 11 times in the final eight games.
On defense, the Steelers are banking on Mitchell and Shazier, the 15th player selected in this year’s draft, to provide much-needed speed and playmaking ability to a unit that was lacking both.
Shazier, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 at the combine, is in line to become the first rookie to start a regular season opener for the Steelers since Kendrell Bell in 2001.
“He’s got a chance to be special,” said fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
Shazier will need to be to help a defense that is in need of improvement.
The Steelers ranked 29th in interceptions last season with 10 and finished 27th in total takeaways with 20.
A big reason was a lack of pressure from the front seven. Pittsburgh saw its sack total fall to 34, it’s fewest since 1990. The run defense also faltered, giving up 4.3 yards per carry, its worst finish since 1999.
In addition to Clark and Hood, linebacker LaMarr Woodley was released, and linebacker Larry Foote was not retained. All four entered last season as starters, though Foote was lost to injury in the opener and Hood lost his job to Cameron Heyward early on.
One thing that would make the defense tougher would be stopping big plays. The Steelers gave up 11 plays of 50-or-more yards last season.
“A minimum of five or six plays would have totally changed the look of our statistical picture,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “But every play counts, and we did give up too many big plays. That’s always been one of our strengths. We intend it to be one again.”