Seems we were all wrong about what ailed the Steelers offense this year. It wasn’t Mike Tomlin’s questionable clock management, nor was it Todd Haley’s vanilla play calling.No, it was offensive line coach Jack Bicknell and his zone blocking scheme, for it was he, and not Todd Haley who found their head on the chopping block. Here’s what the ever chatty Tomlin had to say about Bicknell’s departure.
“I have decided to go in a different direction with respect to the coaching of our offensive line., want to thank Jack for his contributions during the 2013 season, and I wish him well in the future.”
That’s it, snip, cut. Somone had to be the scapegoat and it was Bicknell. Now maybe the Steelers were not constructed to be a zone running team, but Bicknell was not responsible for the unimaginative play calling nor the injuries that seemingly befall the line every year. And he was not responsible for drafting the human turnstile Mike Adams. It’s not his fault that both Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell missed the beginning of the year. Was it his fault the defense couldn’t stop people, create turnovers or generate sacks? I don’t know what other coaching moves the team is planning on making, but to seemingly single out Bicknell, is, well…dumb.
Now it’s well known I am no Todd Haley fan, but I give him credit for recognizing that the no huddle offense was working and that letting Ben Roetlisberger call more of his own plays was a smart way to go as the season wore on. Antonio Brown blossomed into a bona fide number one receiver, Jerricho Cotchery had a career year and Ben stayed healthy all year. Maybe the light will stay on in Haley’s head and the team will move to a more no-huddle, up tempo unit next season, who knows. There are so many factors at play that nobody really knows what lays ahead for the black and gold, but let’s take a look at the offense position by position and see what the Steelers should do.
As I said, Ben stayed healthy all year despite the OL woes and had one of his best seasons. In my opinion he’s easily one of the ten best QBs in this league and has 4-5 solid years left. But will all those years be with the Steelers? I can see him sticking for another two then finishing his career elsewhere (Arizona?). As long as he’s healthy this isn’t an area of real concern. Bruce Gradkowski gives them some solid insurance, far better than they’ve had in recent years. Rookie Landry Jones spent all year parked on the inactive list but gives them a young arm to develop. It wouldn’t hurt to spend a mid to low round pick on a QB in the draft, maybe Georgia’s Aaron Murray, Eastern Illinois Jimmy Garoppolo or Cornell’s Jeff Matthews to compete with Jones and perhaps be groomed as the QB of the future. It’s the lone position on offense that doesn’t need serious attention.
Jonathon Dwyer, Felix Jones and La-Rod Stephens Howling are all set to become free agents leaving Alvester Alexander as the only option behind starter Le’Veon Bell. Howling never got much of a chance to make an impact due to a season ending injury and both he and Felix Jones have low cap numbers ($700,000s), so bringing both back is a good option. Dwyer has shown flashes, but he’s not reliable enough, and they’d be best served to move on from him. The team should look at making an offer to Packers free agent to be James Starks, who would add a veteran presence and bring starting experience. This is a position they could look to address in the draft, I like Boston College’s Andre Williams,Towson’s Terrance West or Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney (whom I like the best of the three). I’d also love to see them invest in a fullback, they could do better than Will Johnson; say LSUs 270lb beast J.C. Copeland or Stanford’s versatile Ryan Hewitt. They should address this position in the draft, make a run (no pun intended) at Starks and re-sign Jones and Howling.
We all know Emmanuel Sanders’ bags are packed and whether he winds up in New England for good or somewhere else remains to be seen. Brown has clearly established himself as a number one, but the rest of the group is unsettled. Jerricho Cotchery did enjoy his best season as a pro but he’s not getting any younger and is also set to become a free agent. Rookie Markus Wheaton’s season was a washout and second year pro Derek Moye had few moments. I really think Moye’s size and athleticism will get him more playing time moving forward and rookie Justin Brown will get an opportunity to show what he can do. The team did sign Lenear Sampson to a future contract and while he was buried in the depth chart while at Baylor, he did have some moments, so he’s definatley worth a shot. They could be in a postion to grab Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews or Penn State’s Allen Robinson in the second round of the draft should they choose to go there. Personally I love Robinson, he has good size and a great YAC average. He has soft hands and can turn a receiver screen into a long TD. It’s highly doubtful that either of the two premier WR’s in the draft Texas A&M’s Mike Evans or Clemson’s Sammy Watkins will be there at 16, so don’t bother to speculate on either of them. Re-signing Cotchery to the veteran minimum is the best option as is continuing to develop Moye and Brown (Justin). Losing Sanders will hurt this group, but if Wheaton can play next year like he did in the pre-season this year, it may take away some of the sting. This group will be one of the team’s youngest and most unsettled going into camp next season.
As much as we’d like, Heath Miller can’t play forever and his absence at the start of the year was glaring. The corps of Michael Palmer, David Paulson, David Johnson and Matt Spaeth strikes fear into nobody. This is a position they MUST address this offseason. Some cheap options might be the Giants’ Brandon Meyers or Packers’ Andrew Quarless. The team could save $1.4 million by letting both Spaeth and Paulson walk and use that towards signingMeyers or Quarless. This isn’t a great draft year for tight ends, but one to look at is Georgia’s Arthur Lynch, who offers a nice combo of pass catching and blocking in his 6-5 254 pound frame. Iowa’s 6-6 265lb. CJ Fiedorowicz also makes for an attractive possibility, but he may not be there for them in the third round, which is where he has been grading out. However they do it, finding help for Miller is a high priority this offseason.
Saved the best for last. This has been the most maligned unit for the Steelers for years, ever since Jeff Hartings, Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons left. It didn’t help that the unit’s best player C Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year, but if there was a bright side to it, it was the signing of Fernando Velasco (until he got hurt). Bringing back a versatile player like Velasco should be high priority, he has a relatively low cap number ($800,000), although his price may go up. Guard David DeCastro improved over the course of 2013 and with a healthy Pouncey back will form the building blocks for the new OL coach. The ‘human swiss army knife’ aka Kelvin Beachum gives them decent depth and Ramon Foster is serviceable. With his low cap number, Mike Adams will surely be given one more chance to underwhelm. Of all the units on offense, it’s no secret this one needs the most work. I think the team needs to draft a tackle with their first round pick and there will be several to choose from : Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, Florida State’s Cameron Erving, Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio and Texas A&Ms Cedric Ogbuehi. Erving and Ogbuehi offer the most upside, particularly Erving who has a high ceiling. Personally, I like Lewan who doesn’t have the same ceiling as the rest but is a tough, nasty, mauler who will inject some meanness to a group who desperately needs it. With little cap room to play with they could opt for inexpensive guys in free agency like the Colts Mike McGlynn (another nasty one), Chiefs Jon Asamoah, Bears Eben Britton or Carolina’s Byron Bell. They could even decide to go Willie Colon one more try, but that’s not the most attractive option. Looking at their own roster, I like Eric Olsen,dating back to his days at Notre Dame and he does offer some flexibility at G/C. Above everything else, getting this unit’s act together is the major priority this offseason.
As I said, many factors will play into what they do on offense, such as cap space and number of draft picks. There are holes galore, but also nice building blocks like Brown, Bell, DeCastro and Pouncey. Giving Ben freedom to call his own plays and running the no huddle with more regularity will make this side of the ball much more fun to watch than it was in 2013.
What are your ideas fans? Let me know