Early in the year, the Steelers struggled with consistency from game to game. After opening the season atop the AFC North at 4-1, they went on a four-game losing streak that put them under .500 and outside the playoff picture.
The season turned around after a 24-9 victory against the Cleveland Browns in Week 11. The win sparked a nine-game winning streak that included a division clinching victory against the rival Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 and playoff victories over the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Their rough loss to the Patriots in the conference title game, however, left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans. After the season, chairman Art Rooney II called the campaign a success, but acknowledged a few areas of improvements. To follow are PSR's grades of the 2016 Steelers:
The quarterback play for the Steelers this year helped carry one of the NFL's best offenses over the second half of the season. The Steelers' offense was ranked 5th in the league with 262 passing yards per game. The quarterback position, however, struggled with consistency. Ben Roethlisberger, who started 17 of the 19 games, looked like an MVP one week before struggling the next. At times, Roethlisberger looked like the 35-year-old quarterback he is -- throwing into double-coverage and making other poor decisions. Roethlisberger had five games where he had multiple interceptions and four where he failed to throw a touchdown pass. He also threw three or more touchdowns in seven games and, of course, engineered the memorable game-winning drive in the final minute against the Ravens. He was also fantastic in a 35-31 loss to Dallas.
Backup Landry Jones played well in his limited chances, going 1-1 with a win against the Browns in Week 17, during which he threw three touchdowns, including a game-winner in overtime.
Overall the Steelers knew they could depend on their quarterbacks each week, but they lacked model consistency.
The Steelers offense ran through their running backs this year, not only in the running game but in the passing attack as well. Although the Steelers only ranked 14th with a 110 yards rushing per game, the running backs combined for 96 receptions for over 700 yards. They forced defenses to have to stop them or they would take the game over. The leader of the offense was Le’Veon Bell, who had over 1,800 scrimmage yards despite missing four games. Bell was the most important asset to the Steelers' offense and was voted team MVP by his teammates. In his absence, De'Angelo Williams filled in nicely to keep the Steelers offense afloat. Every week the running backs performed. Between Bell and Williams, they had at least 100 scrimmage yards in 15 of the 19 games. As long as the Steelers healthy running backs healthy, they won games.
The wide receiver position was lethal this year, although most of the production can be traced to one player. The most important piece in the passing game was, without a question, Antonio Brown. No. 84 was Roethlisberger’s favorite target every game, but that was the also the main problem with the wide receivers. There are no arguments that Brown is one of the best receivers in the game. He was fifth in the league in receiving yards and led the Steelers with 106 receptions. The next closest player was Bell with 75. The teams that were able to take Brown out of the game plan, however, were the teams that were able to beat the Steelers. Despite the mid-season emergence of Eli Rogers opening up the passing attack, no one else really stepped up to make plays. Sammie Coates showed great early season promise as a deep-threat, but also dropped key passes before a pair of broken fingers changed the course of his season. Coates, Rogers and former practice squad player Cobi Hamilton all dropped touchdown passes in the postseason. The receiving core this year was Brown and a bunch of role players. Former second-round pick Markus Wheaton missed most of the season with injuries and will likely no return next season. Martavis Bryant, however, has a chance to return from suspension and Rogers should continue to improve.
The tight ends played well for the Steelers and made impacts in ways that will not show up on the stat sheet. Jesse James, in his second year, proved to be an improved blocker in his first year as a starter. James also ranked fourth on the team in receptions. His ability to seal the edge for the backs to bounce their runs outside is what most impressed coaches, however. Ladarius Green, who was signed last offseason, was sidelined most of the year with a concussion. When he played, he opened up the passing game in an impressive way. The late-season injury to Green definitely hurt the tight ends' production. With Green out, the Steelers did not use many two tight end sets as an asset for the offense.
The offensive line may have been the unsung hero for the Steelers offense this year. They were able to open up holes for the backs to run through and gave Roethlisberger time to throw. The offensive line only gave up 21 sacks this year and kept Roethlisberger mostly clean. They know having their quarterback healthy makes that offense go. What was most impressive was their run blocking. Le’Veon Bell averaged 5 seconds behind the line of scrimmage a play before he makes his move. The line was able to hold their blocks for that time to open up the hole for Bell to run through. On run plays, there were linemen down field getting 2 or 3 blocks to get massive runs for the Steelers. The biggest key for the Steelers were their line was able to stay healthy for most of the year. Having the same line is something the Steelers struggled with for the past couple of years. There is not enough credit that the offensive line can get for this year. With everyone returning, the offense proves to be a threat again next year.
The defensive line was the least impressive group for the Steelers as injuries decimated the unit. During the season's first month, the line got significant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The season-ending injury in Week 11 to Cameron Hayward, however, was a serious problem. To further complicate matters, Stephon Tuitt missed time and top reserve Ricardo Matthews attempted to play through an injury. Despite an impressive rookie season by third-round draft pick Javon Hargrove, the pass rush suffered. Opponents averaged 100 yards rushing per game. Hargrove's play continued to improve as the season went on, and other younger players like L.T. Walton and former practice squader Johnny Maxey made significant contributions. Still, unless pressure came from linebackers, opposing quarterbacks typically had plenty of time to throw. The problem was magnified by Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense in the AFC Championship game.
Steelers' linebackers accounted for 15 of the team's 29 takeaways on the season. They also led the team in sacks with James Harrison's 5 and Bud Dupree's 4.5 in just seven games. Lawrence Timmons led the team in tackles with 114 and Ryan Shazier became a leader of the defense this year by making crucial plays and coming up with big turnovers. The unit really bacame dominant over the second half of the year when Harrison and Dupree moved into the starting lineup and Shazier's health was near 100 percent. Shazier had interceptions in four censecutive games to end the season and through the playoffs. Harrison turned the Wildcard victory over Miami around when he stripped Dolphins' quarterback Matt Moore in the red zone right before halftime. The 39-year-old Harrison's future is unknown, and Timmons willl likely depart in free agency, but there are still plenty of reasons to like the future of unit.
The Steelers' defensive backs were a major liability in 2015, and while the unit saw major improvement in 2016, this is far from a strength. Ill-timed penalties and missed tackles were a problem throughout the year. Despite their struggles, however, the group was perhaps the most improved facet of the defense. The team ranked 16th in passing defense, up from 30th last year, allowing 242.6 passing yards per game -- an improvement of nearly 30 yards per game. The group improved significanlty in the second half of the year, thanks in part to the development of rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis at corner and safety respectively. Still, top tier quarterbacks found success against a young secondary that shows promise but has plenty of room to improve.
Special Teams: B+
The Steelers' special teams played well all season long. The kickoff return team averaged 21 yards a return and broke some long ones. The punt return team never really got any room to make big plays, even with playmakers like Brown and Eli Rogers back there. Punter Jordan Berry did an excellent job pinning teams back in their own zones, averaging 45 yards a kick and pinned the ball inside the 20-yard line 25 times. The best part of this group was kicker Chris Boswell, who was clutch all season long and especially in big games. He accounted for all of the team's scoring in their second-round playoff victory over the Chiefs with six field goals -- the second game in which he booted half a dozen FGs. Some fans will remember his failed onside kick against the Ravens, but the team recognized his value when they re-signed him as soon as the season ended. The kickoff team has to improve, but overall the special teams were solid for the Steelers this year.
The Steelers coaching staff is came under a lot of scrutiny after the team's loss in the AFC Championship game. Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler were criicized for their lack of adjustments against the Patriots, rushed three and playing zone the entire game -- even after their lack of success was evident. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley's play-calling was questionable at various times throughout the year, especially in the red zone. Despite the team's offensive weapons, the Steelers left a lot of points on the board through the year.
That said, Tomlin led his team to an 11-5 record and his fifth AFC North title, and won a pair of playoff games. Butler had a young group to work with, and while the defense let the team down in games against the league's top offenses, the unit improved as the year went along and seems to still have room for growth. Haley completely altered what was a wide-open offense a season ago and instead built his game plans around one of the NFL's top weapons in Le'Veon Bell, resulting in nine consecutive wins and a berth in the AFC title game.
The three will have a lot of time to think about being one game short of the Super Bowl this offseason.