Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Season Review: What Happened to the Defense?
The Pittsburgh Steelers were back in the playoffs in 2014 as AFC North Champions. The season would be considered by most as a success, but the Steelers have higher goals with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center.
They did win 11 games in 2014, but their season may be remembered just as much for poor execution in the playoffs and two bizarre losses to the Buccaneers and Jets.
The Steelers certainly made strides in the right direction this season, though, compared to their two straight 8-8 campaigns in 2012 and 2013. But there's still a lot of work to be done this offseason to get back to being a championship level contender.
What Went Right in 2014?
In 2014, Le'Veon Bell proved that his low yards-per-carry average during his rookie season was not a sign of things to come, and Brown proved that his 2013 campaign was no fluke.
According to our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Pittsburgh offense ranked fifth in overall effectiveness this season, behind only the Packers, Broncos, Cowboys and Patriots. The jump into the elite category for the Steelers offense surprised many, but it was in the works at the end of the 2013 season.
Undoubtedly, running back Le'Veon Bell had the most to do with this drastic jump in success. Upon his return from a foot injury in 2013, Bell helped the Steelers offense to rise from 27th in our Adjusted NEP metric to 16th by the end of the 2013 season.
This huge leap carried over directly to 2014, as shown by Bell's AFC-leading 83 receptions from the running back position and fifth overall finish in the Rushing NEP category. When factoring in receiving, no running back was better than Bell this year.
Antonio Brown followed up his monster 2013 campaign with 129 receptions. His 151.91 Reception NEP led all receivers in 2014, while his 181 targets trailed only Demaryius Thomas (184). Brown's season the sixth-best one from an advanced analytics perspective that we've seen since the turn of the century.
Brown may have also found himself a long term partner at the wide receiver position. Rookie Martavis Bryant had huge moments during the 2014 season, posting an impressive 21.1 yards per catch average on 26 receptions and hauling in eight touchdown passes, two of which were over 80 yards.
The guy throwing him the rock had a nice season himself.
Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was better than ever in 2014. Concerns about how he would adapt to offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system were quieted after Ben led the league in passing yards with 4,952. Roethlisberger was more efficient than we've ever seen him too, as he tied his career high with 32 touchdowns and had the lowest interception rate of his career, with only nine thrown all season.
Roethlisberger finished behind only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning in Passing Net Expected Point this season -- his 159.10 Passing NEP mark was the highest of his career by a mile. (His second-best season came back in 2007, when his Passing NEP was 89.97.)
The 2014 season saw the best Steelers offense our metrics have ever recorded, and arguably the best offense Pittsburgh has ever seen. This season, Pittsburgh's Adjusted Net Expected Points score was 140.96, which was better than any other season since 2000 by 42.90 expected points. In context, 40% of Pittsburgh's recorded season totals in the Adjusted NEP category have been lower than 42.90 points.
Bottom line: it was an awesome offense in the Steel City in 2014.
What Went Wrong in 2014?
With all the positives surrounding the Pittsburgh offense, it's easy to blame the defense for the eventual demise of the team. Do the metrics back up the theory?
Looking at Defensive NEP when adjusted for strength of schedule -- and lets be clear, Pittsburgh had an easy schedule in 2014 playing the AFC and NFC South -- the defense posted a mark of 80.99 (a positive number, in this case, is bad, as it's telling you they surrendered 80.99 more points than they should have). That was 25th in the NFL this year, and easily the worst mark we have ever recorded for a Pittsburgh defense.
Anyone who has been closely following this team knows that this has been a slow but steady downward spiral. Four of the five worst marks that we have recorded since 2000 according to Adjusted Defensive NEP for the Steelers have come in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
So if you were outraged by the team letting the legend Dick LeBeau go, maybe you should consider doing a slow clap instead.
The Pittsburgh defense was especially susceptible to the pass. Aging veterans and an overall lack of talent in the secondary -- and a lack of pass rush -- can be blamed. The pass defense was the seventh-worst unit in the entire NFL this season.
At a macro level, it's clear that the defense was the problem spot for the 2014 Steelers. Young players like Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Shamarko Thomas and Cortez Allen must improve drastically in 2015 for the Steelers to be a real Super Bowl contender.
It will take another solid offseason of drafting and free agent additions to get the Steelers defense on par with the explosive and emerging offense.
Overall though, the future is bright for this Pittsburgh team, and the arrow is certainly pointing up. With a few breaks, they will be a serious Super Bowl contender in the AFC next season.