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Dave Bryan, Editor, Steelers Depot

January 23, 2014
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First, can you tell readers about Steelers Depot and what you have in store for 2014?

It’s draft season right now and that means we are currently hard at work breaking down several draft eligible players. We are watching as much tape as possible and writing up player profiles complete with videos and animated gifs that highlight the strengths and weakness of each. We also plan to have several draft experts on The Terrible Podcast leading up to the draft to discuss players that the Steelers may or may not have interest in drafting. In addition to all of that, we will also have plenty of mock drafts from myself and several of my writers along the way.

Leading up to the start of free agency and OTA sessions, we have several series planned. Some of these are already well underway as we not only take a look back at the 2013 season, but also what we think will happen during free agency and beyond. As usual, the site will always be up-to-date with whatever topical Steelers news is taking place. Once training camp gets underway, we will have our usual daily updates as the 2014 season draws closer. In season, we will provide our usual in-game and post-game analysis complete with stats and animated gifs.

From your point of view, what’s to blame for the running game issues. Is it scheme, play-calling, OL play or RB play?

I really think that it was a combination of several things. For starters, the Steelers were without the services of Le’Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth to start the season in addition to losing Maurkice Pouncey just eight plays into the opener. In addition, the offensive line took forever to gel and the outside zone scheme we expected to see more of with then-new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was quickly abandoned for whatever reasons.

I’m not one that easily points to play-calling and I really don’t think that was as big of issue as most do. More than anything else, the tape shows that execution was lacking when it came to the running game during the first half of the season. Once the offensive line shuffling settled down in the second half of the season and Spaeth finally returned to action, the arrow really started to point up. Bell looked like he adjusted to the speed of the game and the execution at all five spots on the line improved as well. The success that the running game had down the stretch was certainly encouraging and there is no reason to think that it won’t take a giant step forward in 2014.

You’ve analyzed Jarvis Jones’ play over his rookie season. What does he need to do to improve, especially as a pass rusher, and do you think he has the capacity to do so?

Jones played exactly like I thought he would during his rookie season. I broke him down extensively following the draft and it was easy to see that he lacked strength and a pass rush repertoire when it came to counter moves. While he had nice sack stats at Georgia, they were mostly a result of him beating lesser competition to the edge as there weren’t a lot of instances him beating tackles with a bull-rush or dip and bend.

As the season progressed, Jones looked a lot more comfortable in the Dick LeBeau scheme and that is encouraging. Moving forward, however, he must get stronger and work on developing his counter moves in order to increase his pass rushing effectiveness, which was pretty much non-existent in 2013.

While not great against the run to start with, Jones really improved in that area late in the season. Getting stronger should help with is ability to hold the edge and he should only get better when it comes to reading his keys and reacting quicker.

Jones has a lot of upside, but we have to see it on tape before we get too excited about his future. He has a lot of work to do during the offseason and judging by his post-season comments, he knows it. His progress will be easy to see as early as training camp and the preseason.

From your analysis, were the run defense issues a matter of NT play, LB play or scheme? How do you see this being rectified in 2014?

While most everybody is trying to point the finger at nose tackle Steve McLendon as the reason why the run defense suffered in 2013, I don’t. In fact, the Steelers run defense was pretty good against runs scored as going right up the middle when McLendon was on the field, outside of about six or seven explosive plays of twenty yards or more. I dedicated a post to that very topic that you can read here.

The poor tackling in the secondary surely did not help out, nor did the constant shuffling of the buck linebacker position. Like it or not, I really believe that the Steelers missed Larry Foote when it came to their run defense. Losing him in the season opener resulted in Vince Williams having to learn on the job. In addition, Troy Polamalu was used quite a bit at inside linebacker and that’s something that hasn’t happened since early on in his career. In addition to Williams and Polamalu having to play inside, Kion Wilson and Terence Garvin also took snaps alongside Lawrence Timmons. Yes, there were still some issues along the defensive line throughout the season and they aren’t totally off the hook.

The run defense uncharacteristically allowed seven runs of 20 yards or more in 2013 and five of those went for 40 yards or more. Runs that long will easily ruin an average and usually result in points for an opponent as well.

What do you attribute the second-half of the season’s offense success to? What did they do to improve?

As I mentioned in an earlier answer, getting the offensive line settled down and bodies back healthy certainly didn’t hurt things. In addition to that, the use of the no-huddle combined with a more rhythmic, quick passing game helped tremendously. By using more no-huddle, Ben Roethlisberger was able to get a good pre-snap read of the defense and personnel that was on the field and check to another play when the need presented itself.

In addition to the above, the running game improved and Bell also became more and more involved in the passing game. At times, the offense would even use an empty set with Bell lined up outside as a receiver in order to try to take advantage of personnel mismatches.

Keeping Roethlisberger properly protected also played a big role in the offense being able to move the ball better. Kelvin Beachum really was one of the best left tackles in the league over the course of the final seven games of the season when it came to pass blocking efficiency. When times called for it, Roethlisberger was able to extend plays and there’s no question that he’s the best in the league at doing just that.

Another major factor was that red zone production got a lot better down the stretch. In the last six games the offense was 14-of-20 (70%) inside the red zone when came to scoring touchdowns.

With today’s offense-oriented NFL, in your opinion, should the Steelers’ defense be looking more aggressively for the turnover rather than playing a more conservative style of defense?

When it comes to the Steelers defense and turnovers, it all starts with an effective pass rush and stopping the run on early downs. In my opinion, the personnel hasn’t carried out the scheme well over the course of the last three seasons when it comes to doing both of those primary things effectively.

Keeping opposing quarterbacks in predictable situations when it comes to down and distance is a must and having a lead in the fourth quarter also helps in that area.

As far as playing more press versus off coverage, I think you might see a little more of that next season, but not as much as many fans will want. The Steelers generally draft cornerbacks that tackle well as opposed to those that are effective playing man. Why? Well, in order to get a big, physical corner that plays man well, you have to draft them in earlier rounds.

LeBeau’s defense is simple, but mighty effective when the personnel execute it correctly and don’t try to do too much. Stop the run, tackle the catch, don’t get beat deep and get after the passer effectively. Everyone will agree that they failed miserably at all four of those phases last season.

The draft is still a good deal away, but who would you like to see the Steelers draft in the first few rounds that will realistically be there?

I hate to focus in on just one player. Yes, I do mock drafts, but they’re more of an exercise as opposed to me wanting one specific player. I will say, however, that I do not believe that the Steelers will draft a tackle early and I won’t be surprised if they don’t draft an offensive lineman at all. As far as the first round goes, I think the Steelers will draft either a wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker, defensive end or tight end. Yes, it’s that wide open as there are so many needs.

It’s so hard to predict who will fail to 15 as we sit here in January, however, if either Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack or Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins slip, either would be hard to pass up. Picking at 15 should afford the Steelers the opportunity to really go best player available at one of those five positions I listed above.

What free agents do you think the Steelers could and should realistically look at signing this offseason?

Based on their salary cap situation and history, I think that it will be another quiet offseason for the Steelers when it comes to signing outside free agents. As usual, the priority will be re-signing their own free agents that they wish to retain. This includes Jason Worilds, Jerricho Cotchery, Ziggy Hood, Al Woods, Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace to name a few and the priority will likely be in the order that I listed them or very close to it.

Outside of their own free agents, I don’t expect any big names to be signed. If Ryan Clark and Will Allen are not re-signed, I could see them perhaps looking to see if a free agent free safety type can be added for depth, but I wouldn’t hold your breath for that to happen. In addition, I could perhaps see a back-up running back added to compete for a roster spot and maybe a journeyman offensive lineman to add competition. Any other free agents that they might add will be for the minimum with no guarantee they will make it out of training camp.

Was Worilds really that much better than Woodley when Woodley was healthy? Why/why not? How do you see that playing out?

It seems like so long ago that Woodley had five sacks through the first six games. In addition, he was effectively providing pressure in those first six games as well. Once he suffered his first calf injury against the Buffalo Bills, you kind of knew at that point that he would have problems overcoming it. Was he good at rushing the passer during that six game span? I thought so. Was he the 2009 version of LaMarr Woodley during those six games? No.

As for Worilds, he’s always been better on the left side as opposed to the right. In addition, he appears to have finally mastered that spin move of his and developed a few more subtle counter moves on top of it. It probably didn’t hurt that it was a contract-year for him as well.

Worilds really got into a groove as the starter once Woodley went down and the numbers back it up. Was his best better than Woodley’s best in 2013? I would have to say, yes.

While many believe that releasing Woodley during the offseason should be a priority if Worilds is re-signed, I currently believe that there is a pretty good chance that both will be retained if at all possible. Woodley needs to heed the advice of Ike Taylor and train with Tom Shaw down in Florida during the offseason. He needs to learn how to run, and how to properly strengthen those hamstrings and calves of his. If he does that, I believe that he still has another productive season or two in him. If he doesn’t, well, there is no reason to think that he will be able to make it through another season without missing games.

Will I be shocked if Woodley is cut loose at some point during the offseason? No, but you have to remember that the Steelers would have zero depth at the outside linebacker position should that happen. Chris Carter certainly won’t be the answer to the depth issues and while they might draft an outside linebacker in May, it would be asking a lot for that player to contribute a much during his rookie season.

Rest assured, the Steelers have a big decision ahead of them and it starts with getting Worilds locked up prior to the start of free agency. If that happens and Woodley is still on the team come the start of the new league year in March, I think it will be a sign that they intend on keeping him around at least another season. In other words, I think we will have a definitive answer as to the status of both within seven weeks from right now.

Does this team need a new OT? Or do you think Beachum and Gilbert are solid enough? And what are your thoughts on Mike Adams in 2014?

I did not think that Beachum had the ability to play left tackle in the NFL and so far he has proved me wrong. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, he really played well in the second half of the season, and especially when it came to protecting the blindside of Roethlisberger. After studying the tape from those games and knowing how dedicated Beachum is to his craft, I have now changed my tune. I do believe that he should be considered the starting left tackle moving forward and he will be hard to beat out for the position. At the very least, he’s earned the opportunity to call the job his for a while.

As for Gilbert, his career thus far can be best described as very inconsistent and that inconsistency can be seen from one play to the next during some games. For an offensive lineman that has already played just over 2,100 snaps at one position in the NFL, he has not lived up to being a second-round selection.

With the above being said, I still believe that Gilbert has not reached his upside as a right tackle. I think he remains very technically flawed and don’t believe that he has committed himself to being in the best physical shape. He can be a mauler in the run game when he wants to be and we’ve seen that. 2014 is a contract year for Gilbert and a lot will be expected from him.

As for Adams, I am on record as saying that I didn’t like the pick from day one. In my opinion, he is soft and not yet comfortable in his own skin. He has all of the tools needed to be a quality starting tackle in the league, but those tools are all scattered about and never used all at one time.

During Adams’ rookie season, he showed some promise as a run blocker on the right side, but when asked to start the 2013 season as the left tackle, he played like an undrafted free agent that was in over his head. Like Gilbert, he needs to dedicate himself more to his craft and perhaps new offensive line coach Mike Munchak can fix his footwork and hand usage problems. Regardless of how good of coach that Munchak is, Adams has to want it for himself and right now I see that as the biggest obstacle that he has to overcome.

Where do you see Shamarko Thomas and Markus Wheaton fitting in this upcoming season?

Both Thomas and Wheaton were able to get valuable playing time early on in the 2013 as rookies, but injuries quickly caused both to fall back in their development. Once recovered from his broken finger, Wheaton really didn’t have a chance to show what he has because of the players that were ahead of him on the depth chart. Wheaton comes off as a very smart kid and I believe that a full offseason of OTAs and mini camps will put him right where he needs to be. More than anything else, he just needs to stay healthy. He has all of the tools needed to succeed in the Steelers offensive system.

With Thomas, I see him more as a strong safety than I do I free safety. While he did play 193 snaps on defense as a rookie, he didn’t play a single snap after suffering his ankle injury way back in Week 10. While on the field, he looked unsure of his assignments several times, so he still has a lot to learn.

It will be interesting to see how 2014 plays out for Thomas as it looks like Polamalu will indeed be back. Do the Steelers think that the Syracuse product can step right in and fill Clark’s shoes at free safety? I’m willing to bet they don’t. If not, Thomas’ second season could consist of him mainly playing a lot in the slot as a dimeback in sub-packages while he is further groomed to eventually take over for Polamalu. We just haven’t seen enough him on Sunday’s to know what he is or isn’t. We do know that he is a big hitter and that’s about it. We still have a lot to find out about him and it will be interesting to read about his offseason development. What happens during free agency should also provide us some clues as to what the Steelers have planned for him in 2014 as well. He is a good special teams player, so at least we can count on that for now.

What do you think Mike Munchak’s hire will mean for this OL/offense?

The Steelers really did good by hiring Munchak and it will be hard to find anyone that will argue against that. I firmly believe that his primary focus will be to develop Adams, Gilbert and Beachum for starters. Let’s face it, they have two second-round draft picks tied up in those three players and are not getting the proper return on the investment.

In addition to those three players, Munchak ought to love being able to work with Pouncey and David DeCastro. DeCastro is a technician just like Munchak was during his playing days and I fully expect the Stanford product to be the best right guard in the league next season.

Munchak is fully versed in both the inside and outside zone schemes, so you can expect that it will be taught correctly right from the start. He is stickler for proper footwork and spacing, so this young unit has a lot of hard work ahead them.

During his time as the Titans offensive line coach, Munchak had some very good offensive lines that produced several 1,000-yard rushers. Le’Veon Bell’s running style closely resembles that of Eddie George, so you can’t help but get excited about having Munchak on board coaching the offensive line that will block for him. One thing is for certain, this offensive should be able to run first next season and pass second. Like everyone else, I am very excited about this hire.

Any last thoughts for readers?

As many already know, I am a very polarizing individual and that’s because I am mania bipolar. This causes me to be very abrasive on Twitter and as a result I often offend people easily. In other words, don’t take things that I say personally and I invite you to learn more about that disorder and how to deal with those that have it. I also have obsessive compulsive and sleep disorders in addition to being bipolar, but have learned how to channel all of this into working tirelessly on my site and I hope that it shows. I have some great writers that contribute to the site daily and we work around the clock seven days a week to be as compressive as possible. Our podcast will be entering its fifth season in 2014 and you can download it on iTunes or hear it on Steelers Nation Radio. During the offseason, David Todd and I do two shows a week and once the season starts we bump that up to three a week.

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