Late-season surge shows what “Stillers football” should be
Stillers 2014 Pre-Draft Look
The Stillers head into the ’14 draft with needs at virtually every position.
Before they decide which players to take, however, they would be wise to decide what kind of team they want to be.
I’m speaking specifically about what’s come to be known as “Stillers football,” that supposedly uniquely Pittsburghian brand of play that reflects the tough, hard-nosed character of the city.
Traditionally that’s referred to running the ball down your opponent’s throat, then bashing him over the head with your head-cracking defense. But is that the way it should be in 2014?
The answer to that question is found by looking back at the 2013 campaign. After a weak first-half season that included a disastrous 0-4 start, the Stillers stormed back in the second half to notch a sparkling 6-2 record. That, in case you didn’t realize, was second-best in the entire league, better than the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos during that span.
The Stillers accomplished this feat by way of averaging a stellar 28 points per game in the season’s second half. This was primarily due to running a lot of no-huddle and allowing Ben Roethlisberger to call more plays himself.
Roethlisberger finished the season with a pretty fair 92 passer rating, but raised his game in the second half, posting red-hot ratings of 119, 114 and 102 in three of his last eight games.
This late-season surge also happened thanks to Antonio Brown, who broke the Stillers’ single-season receiving record with 1499 yards. Brown was on fire, becoming the first player in NFL history to notch at least five receptions and 50 yards per game. Still a threat on kick returns, he’s emerged as a true offensive weapon.
Something to keep in mind: this late surge didn’t happen because of the running game. Le’Veon Bell performed well as a rookie, but broke the 100-yard mark only once in the last eight games. Again, the Stillers passing attack is what drove things, along with a defense that finally began to make plays late in the season.
If the Stillers are looking to improve their offense in the draft, they should therefore look to build on their team strength: their passing game. That is what “Stillers football” should be in 2014: strong defense, and a superior passing attack supported by a solid run game. I’m not saying this because it’s what I think; it’s what modern NFL rules support.
The team showed they were looking in the right direction when they announced they would be looking at drafting a big wideout (something I’ve been calling for them to do for two years now). The prime candidate appears to be 6’5” Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State, a logical choice (though lately his stock has been dropping thanks to concerns about both his weight and maturity).
If the Stillers pass on Benjamin they’d do well to look in later rounds at all-world WR Sammy Watkins’s receiving counterpart at Clemson: Martavis Bryant. Bryant goes 6’4” and runs like a deer; in fact he’s said to be faster than Watkins. Bryant could be developed into the big, field-stretching target the team has lacked since Plaxico Burress. He could probably be had in the second or third rounds.
This draft is rich in receivers, including standouts Odell Beckham of LSU and Marquise Lee of USC. One big-name guy I’d shy away from, however, would be Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel’s main target at Texas A&M. The reason? His game was built on pushing off DBs – something he may not be able to get away with in the NFL.
It’s also possible the Stillers will look at a big receiving threat who’s not a wide receiver. That would be North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, whose size-speed combo has gotten him compared to Vernon Davis.
Remember, in today’s game the emphasis isn’t so much on getting separation, it’s more about finding receivers who can simply out jump defenders to the ball. The model is Calvin or Andre Johnson. For the Stillers and their scrambling, improvising QB, having a big downfield target is key. That’s why the team must look in this direction.
The Stillers also need to rejuvenate a slow, aging defense. Cornerback is a natural place to start, and many draft prognosticators have the Stillers picking stud corner Darqueeze Dennard from Michigan State. I personally thought Dennard looked a bit stiff in his combine drills, however, and wonder if maybe he’s more suited to be a number-two corner. The better pick may be big CB Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech, who’s much better suited to play man coverage.
Should by some miracle Pitt DT Aaron Donald be available when the Stillers pick, the team would be wise to snatch him. Donald ripped it up at the all-star games, looking good against the top o-line candidates in the draft. He’d also look good next to Cam Heyward.
Frankly I can’t get a feel for which player the Stillers might be drafting first. I had a feeling the team would move up in ’03 to take Troy Polamalu. I also had the same feeling a few years later with Santonio Holmes. I believed all their talk in ’04 about Philip Rivers really meant they wanted to take Roethlisberger instead.
This year I don’t get any such vibes. Fortunately, however, it’s one of the best and deepest draft in years, so the odds of selecting any player are good. And with lots of picks this year, the Stillers can really help improve themselves as a team.
That is, as long as they realize what “Stillers football” should mean in 2014.