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Steelers 2014 Draft: Stepping back for a reality check

At the beginning of the year, we all agreed that 2014 would rise or fall with the Steelers' rate of improvement. They had a long way to go, but potentially had the players to get there too. So how are those players and their units performing?

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On this year's draft picks:

  • Ryan Shazier was progressing on schedule or better prior to his injury. He looks to be a solid, long-term keeper and maybe a star.
  • Stephon Tuitt is progressing on schedule or better. He also looks to be a solid, long-term keeper and maybe a star.
  • Dri Archer has been a minor disappointment in the return game and he's living up to my limited expectations in the offense. But it seems to be a mental thing more than a physical one and, so far, he hasn't looked fragile. All in all, he's probably on schedule too.
  • Martavis Bryant is progressing a little better than schedule. He actually got onto the field and made a nice play for the score! And he produced quality film that'll make him a better player.
  • The late-rounders average out, with Dan McCullers being well ahead of expectations and others being invisible, injured, or raided from our practice squad.

Judged by the standard of prior years, the class looks great. Two potential stars, two likely contributors with a lot of untapped upside and some real potential flashing at the bottom. That's top notch.

On the progression of other young players and relocated players:

  • Sean Spence looks like a starting-quality linebacker as well as a fabulous player to have for depth. He might even keep Shazier on the bench for awhile, so the coaches can be extra certain that his injury has healed completely. Last year's weakness will be a decided strength by the end of this year and into the future.
  • Vince Williams looks like a very high-quality backup who could probably start elsewhere right now or at least in future years. Both sides at ILB will definitely be a strength moving forward.
  • Markus Wheaton hasn't yet lived up to the lofty expectations of being a true #2 receiver, but he hasn't been exactly "bad" either. We'd love to learn more from the film-and-analysis gurus.
  • Cortez Allen hasn't lived up to the expectations but, as discussed the other day, there appear to be some solvable reasons for that. Disappointing, but the jury's still out.
  • Shamarko Thomas was looking to be well ahead of schedule until he got hurt. This one's a gem that the front office can be proud of finding - at least if you buy into the inside scoop as parceled out by Tunch & Wolf.
  • Jarvis Jones was playing up to expectations, if not up to hopes. And then he got hurt. The jury hasn't even gone out yet, but the courtroom audience was seen to be stifling an occasional yawn.
  • Le'Veon Bell, of course, is a dream come true. Mere hopes were exceeded long ago and whatever might have passed for reasonable expectations have vanished from memory. If Colbert got appropriate credit for this pick, he'd be immune from sniping for a decade to come. Since that's an unattainable goal, however, he'll have to settle for a Nero Wolfe "satisfactory." (Points go to those who get this reference and sympathies to those who haven't had the good fortune to learn it).

On the veterans

  • Steve McLendon may not even be a light lunch Snack, but he's definitely a quality contributor. The position is upgradeable but certainly not a hole. And that's at least up to expectations.
  • After a rocky start, Lawrence Timmons is getting the hang of playing the Buck. Disappointing, but only looking back in the mirror. The future gets brighter.
  • Alas, Troy Polamalu has definitely descended toward mere mortality. Does he have another year after this one? And do we want to see it, or would we rather remember him in his glory? Shamarko Thomas really is looking good...
  • Alas, but Heath Miller is looking a bit mortal as well. Here's hoping that the NFL Draft steps up to offer a stud developmental prospect who could be his heir.
  • Cam Thomas is a clear step down from Al Woods and an even bigger step down from Ziggy Hood. Thankfully, the team snagged Tuitt in the second round.
  • Brett Keisel is still defying Father Time. Let's hope it lasts. And thanks again for snagging Tuitt in the second round.
  • Ben Roethlisberger is playing well, but not great. The issues are beyond my poor ability to figure out, but it certainly feels like a Manning/Brady/Rogers/Brees would be humming along at 30+ points per game and the lack of QB "magic" appears to account for why our team has not. On the other hand, Ben has been everything you'd want short of magical.
  • Antonio Brown has been All World. Expectations were high but reality is even higher.

On the units

  • The offensive line is maybe a bit below expectations, but only a bit and with some nagging questions. Kelvin Beachum has been a solid journeyman, as expected. Marcus Gilbert has become a nice journeyman, as expected. Based on Monday, Adams is maturing into a solid backup. (Would love to see an analysis of his play too!). Ramon Foster is what he has always been, while Maurkice Pouncey and David Decastro are looking like the stars they ought to be. But where is the outside zone-running game and why hasn't the team even tried to deploy it? How much improvement would we see if the Steelers drafted a first-round stud to play Left Tackle, and Beachum became either a superb backup or a replacement for Foster at Left Guard? Or is the Munch Magic really working for Adams and creating a situation where he might push for a starting job next year?
  • The No. 1 receiver is Antonio Brown. 'Nuff said. The No. 2 receiver has been below expectations, but not a disaster. What's going on with that? At the No. 3 receiver spot, Justin Brown is a bit ahead of expectations, DHB is ahead of expectations, and Lance Moore is living up to expectations. Cool.
  • The D-Line is still a cipher and time is running short for its identity to develop. Tuitt will be the answer from 2015 on. That's great news. but what about the rest of this year? Cam Thomas simply leaves too big a hole to get us through a competitive playoff game.
  • The run defense is still a key issue and one that causes serious concern. What the devil is going on with their inability to consistently respond to the outside zone? Yes, it's getting better. There are many instances now where the team is stuffing those plays very professionally. But, in between, there are way, way too many plays where the Steelers look helpless and confused. You can't win when two or three players on the front seven caught up in the wash of a single block, and defensive backs have to make last-ditch tackles 5-15 yards downfield. To my eye it's clearly a problem at the players' level. That's proved by the fact that many, and on Monday a majority, of outside zone runs get thoroughly stuffed. So the scheme does work when it's played correctly. And yet the problem persists. This, along with the sputtering offense, are Questions 1 and 1a with regard to how far the team can progress. An actual analysis would be nice...
  • The pass rush is still a mystery and time is running short. Jason Worilds is looking like a quality player if he's behind a really good end, and has a fully-contributing pass rush partner on the other side of the defense. Taken on his own, however ... not so much.
  • The pass-rush and run-defense issues have combined to create a negative-feedback loop. If we had two great pass-rushers at either end, the rest of the D could focus more on playing the run. But the Steelers don't have stars at the ends, so the focus has to spread a bit. If Pittsburgh had players who consistently played mistake-free ball, the run game might give up yardage but wouldn't get gashed. That would allow the team to take some risks to enhance the pass rush. But these players have not been consistent enough and they lose too often on running plays. This leaves the pass-rushers on an island, with the result that opposing offenses can establish an effective running game, thus having the opportunity to kill this defense with good play-action passes. It's a case where all boats need to rise. But what it will take to get that done remains unclear. If the film-and-analysis gurus are looking for a project...
  • The safeties are looking good. After a slow start, Mike Mitchell is really starting to get it, and as Troy descends, Shamarko seems to rise.
  • The corners are ... sigh. All I can say is, the Steelers clearly believe that you can win with corners that bend a lot and only break on rare occasions. That's what they've drafted for and that's what they have. If Cortez Allen can "get it," the present will be okay but the future will still be dim (subject to Shaquille Richardson developing on IR and/or a successful draft pick). The backups aren't bad. But is not-bad good enough?

On the coaching:

  • Mike Tomlin has kept the team on track and the players focused. The arrow is starting to point in the right direction. There seems to be no backstage uproar. Steady as she goes.
  • Dick LeBeau has been dealing with a unit that unaccountably keeps slipping off-track. I don't for a [bleep]ing second buy into the notion that he has forgotten how to teach, how to inspire, or how to game plan. The fact that the system works so well most of the time shows that it can work even better if the players hold up their end. What I don't understand is which players are failing to reach that standard or why. Could Coach Dad be to blame for their failures? Possibly, but no one outside of the team meetings, film rooms, and practice fields could give us that answer for sure.
  • Todd Haley gets an up-and-down review. Offensive Coordinators get more unjustified hate mail than every other spot combined. 90 percent of that is armchair quarterbacking - a phrase that exists for exactly this reason. On the other hand, we all expected this unit to carry the team through the first half of the season with a string of 30+ points-per-game performances. Those simply haven't materialized. Some players look great (Brown and Bell in particular), but the offense as a whole? Not so much. Could Coach Haley be to blame? Possibly. We'll find out in the off-season when those in a position to know - the ones in the meetings or film rooms, and on the practice fields - have their final say.