At some point, every team has to start looking at how to get ready for next year. For 12 lucky fanbases, that’s something that takes place when they’re finally eliminated from the playoffs. For the other 20, however, there comes a point where you have to acknowledge your team’s not going anywhere this season. With only the ’92 Chargers making the playoffs after an 0-4 start, some teams already know they’re done at the quarter-post of the NFL season. These are their stories.
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4)
Cause of Death: Injuries, injuries, injuries. The Steelers were looking to bounce back after an off-season last year, but instead, they’ve put up their worst start since 1968. They lost Maurkice Pouncey, Larry Foote, and LaRod Stephens-Howling early, and only got Le’Veon Bell back this week. The damage in the offensive line and running back corps has resulted in a mere 155 total rushing yards this season. The defense hasn’t exactly helped out, generating a whopping 0 turnovers this season, resulting in poor field position for their offense. Also, there’s a bizarre reliance on bubble screens and other odd offensive playcalling gambits that seldom result in positive gains.
Time of Death: The NFL has decided to export its worst teams to London this season, resulting in an evenly played, if less than high-quality, matchup. With both the Steelers and Vikings trying to avoid the bugaboo of an 0-4 start, the Steelers were driving late with a chance to tie up the game, but Roethlisberger found himself in Everson Griffen’s grasp. With no time outs, he let go of the ball hoping for a miracle, but instead the Vikings recovered to clinch the victory.
Analysis: It is very rarely a good sign when your starting quarterback comes out and declares you to be the worst team in the league, but that’s exactly what Big Ben did after their London matchup. This may or may not be true. There’s more talent on the squad then on some of their contemporaries up in New York or down in Jacksonville, but they’re certainly in the conversation, and that’s unusual for this team.
The defense is just aging before our eyes. With the average starter being 29.7 years old, they are the oldest defense in the league, and it appears to be bringing with it declining skills, rather than wisdom. The zero turnovers are bad enough but they’ve only had 14 pass defenses all year long. They don’t have the opportunity for interceptions, much less any success. They didn’t have a ton of turnovers last season, either, but they were making plays on the ball. They’re not even doing that anymore. They’re missing tackles and they’re forcing the shaky offense to try to be perfect, which it just isn’t.
They’re also lacking depth, so with injuries on the line, you’re getting to watch Mike Adams let players rush right by him and throttle Big Ben. There may not be a quarterback in the league better at withstanding pressure than Roethlisberger, but you don’t need to prove that on every play!
Questions are being raised about the offensive playcalling, as well. Adams is clearly not comfortable out there and faced Jared Allen last week. With almost no help from tight ends or running backs, he was just outmatched and allowed multiple sacks. Todd Haley’s been under a lot of pressure through his first two years as offensive coordinator, even though the offense clicked more last week than it did the previous three. That’s in no small part thanks to Le’Veon Bell who looked like the second coming of Emmitt Smith compared to what the Steelers were trying to do in the previous three weeks. Haley’s going to need to get the ship turned around or he’ll find himself looking for work this offseason.
What to Do Now: There’s not much the Steelers can do now. The defense is old but you can’t go out and get new starters mid-season. They’re just going to have to take their defensive lumps, as it were. There’s still talent here but maybe they need to find ways to rotate out some fading players, like Ike Taylor.
On offense, there’s a bit more cause for hope, as Le’Veon Bell looked downright good against the Vikings. They’ve only gotten 58 yards per game on the ground, putting them at fourth-worst in the league, but Bell’s 77 yards in a losing effort was a positive sign. They can improve offensively by replacing Mike Adams, perhaps by slotting Kelvin Beachum on the left and keeping Marcus Gilbert on the right. Something needs to be done to help get the run-game going. They’ve got a week off to try to put all the pieces into their proper place, but honestly, what they need most of all is an infusion of depth and that’s not happening until the offseason.
The selection of Le’Veon Bell made paying too much money for either of these running backs an unlikely possibility, though they’ll probably want to keep at least one so they avoid running anyone too far into the ground. Stephens-Howling’s recovery from his torn ACL will be very important to watch but at 28, teams won’t be lining up to pay a dynamic player coming off of an injury like this loads of cash. Jones has been struggling as well and is now dwindling into the backdrop next to Jonathan Dwyer as a back just to give Bell some breathing room. If either player gets re-signed, it will be for near the league minimum.
2014 Draft Prospects: The Steelers might still win some games but the way they’ve been playing, they’re looking at a pick somewhere in the top 7 or so. It’s rare that the Steelers get to pick that high so the pressure to make the selection count will be higher than usual. Their last top-10 draft pick? Plaxico Burress back in 2000. It’s been a while.
If they do draft that high, there are two names that they’ll narrow in on. The first is Jadeveon Clowney, the all-everything defensive end from South Carolina. It would take a lot for him to drop to them but if all the teams drafting before the Steelers are QB-needy, the consensus best player in the draft would be theirs for the taking. There would be no issues with their tackling with someone like Clowney anchoring the line; an all-around player who’s already NFL ready. He’ll be gone in the first three picks.
A more likely selection would be a new franchise left tackle, which they desperately need. Enter Jake Matthews of Texas A&M. He’s one of the ideal left-tackle prospects, getting extra experience there now after opting to stay for his senior year. He’s handling some of the best pass rushers at the college level. He’s very active, fighting for hand position and generating a lot of push. The switch to left tackle will pump up his draft value, as well. He’d be a perfect cornerstone for Pittsburgh on offense.