Visit NFL from the sidelines on the new Observer-Reporter site:

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Steelers readying to get serious with free agents

Scott Brown of had a story today on Ike Taylor after sitting down with the cornerback at the Super Bowl.

Taylor reiterated that he wants to finish his career with the Steelers and is willing to move to safety to do so.

That's not likely to be in the cards. The Steelers want a player at free safety who's capable of creating some turnovers, something Taylor hasn't shown a propensity to do in his career.

Taylor is scheduled to earn just over $11 million this season, and though he's no longer capable of covering the opposing team's No. 1 receiver all over the field as he did early in his career, he's still a capable NFL cornerback, even at 34.

But that $11 million salary is too high and Taylor will be asked to take a pay cut sometime in the next month if he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

That will likely be the first move the Steelers make as they begin the process of readying for free agency, which begins March 13.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Steelers-Vikings trade coaches

Maybe the Steelers can get Adrian Peterson as a player to be named later?

Just two days after Kirby Wilson was hired as Minnesota's running backs coach, Mike Tomlin hired the man Wilson is replacing, James Saxon, to take Wilson's old job.

Saxon, an eight-year NFL veteran, has previously coached with Miami, Kansas City and Buffalo before spending the previous three seasons with the Vikings.

He was fired along with the rest of the staff when Leslie Frazier was not retained at the end of the 2013 season.

Saxon will be tasked with helping the continued growth of Le'Veon Bell, who set a Steelers' rookie record with 1,259 yards from scrimmage in 2013 despite missing the first three games of the year with a sprained foot.

He knows a little something about running backs coming back strong from injuries. In 2012, Peterson rushed for more than 2,000 yards despite being less than a year removed from tearing his ACL late in the 2011 season.

Saxon will also likely take a big role in helping decide who will also be on Pittsburgh's roster at running back in 2014.

Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling, Bell's backups in 2013, are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March.

@ The Steelers signed a wide receiver, Danny Coale, to a futures contract today.

He's an interesting prospect. A fifth-round pick of the Cowboys in 2012, Coale was a speedy wideout out Virginia Tech who's had some tough injury issues. First, he suffered a broken toe during a conditioning drill in 2012, then he suffered a torn ACL during practice later that season.

He was waived at the end of training camp in 2013 and spent some time on Indianapolis' practice squad.

The 6-0, 200-pound Coale ran a 4.37 40 at his pro day a couple of years ago and started 54 of 55 career games at Virginia Tech.

By the way, he's also the son-in-law of Steelers broadcaster Tunch Ilkin.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Wilson leaving . . . for Minnesota

Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson was informed Saturday by Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh that he wouldn't be that team's new offensive coordinator.

But Wilson still won't be returning to the Steelers.

Wilson asked the Steelers for release from his contract, which still had one year remaining, and will join the Minnesota Vikings' staff.

It's likely that Wilson, who was considered to be the offensive coordinator in waiting before Bruce Arians was ousted, came to the realization or was told that Todd Haley isn't going anywhere soon.

Had Wilson not suffered burns all over his body in a kitchen fire at his home in 2012, it might have been he, not Haley, who is Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator. But Wilson did suffer those injuries and was hospitalized for several months afterward.

The Steelers had no choice but to move on at that point, even though they stuck by him as their running backs coach.

Wilson did a good job with rookie Le'Veon Bell this past season, but given his career ambitions, it might have been time for a change of scenery.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Free agency on the horizon

With free agency on the horizon, the lists and rankings of NFL free agents will start to find their way onto the internet.

Rotoworld has put out its list of potential free agents here.

There are some interesting notes for the Steelers.

Linebacker Jason Worilds, the Steelers' top target to re-sign before free agency begins, is the second-highest rated outside backer available according to Rotoworld.

Only Washington's Brian Orakpo is rated higher according to the site, with Worilds rated better than guys such as Shaun Phillips, Keith Rivers, Parys Haralson and Larry English.

Actually, it's not a very deep outside linebacker crop, which could play well for Worilds.

At defensive end, Brett Keisel ranks 15th on the list, while Ziggy Hood is the 16th ranked defensive tackle. Al Woods is ranked 30th at defensive tackle.

Ryan Clark comes in at 10th among safeties available - right behind old-as-dirt Charles Woodson - while Will Allen is 34th. Former Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, who played for the Giants this season, is rated 23rd.

At punter, Mat McBriar, who took over at midseason for the Steelers and did a so-so job, is rated third, just ahead of the guy he replaced, Zoltan Mesko. The only two guys available considered better than those two are Pat McAfee and Donnie Jones.

On the offensive side of the ball, La'Rod Stephens-Howling is rated 14th among running backs despite missing all but one game of the 2013 season with a knee injury. Right behind him is Jonathan Dwyer, while Felix Jones is rated 20th.

Former Steelers starter Rashard Mendenhall is seventh on the list.

Emmanuel Sanders is rated as the ninth-best wide receiver available, just behind Anquan Boldin and Andre Roberts and ahead of Riley Cooper, oft-injured Danario Alexander and Jacoby Jones. Jerricho Cotchery is 17th.

At tight end, David Johnson is 20th, while Michael Palmer is 25th.

Former Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon is the third-ranked guard in free agency this year, while Fernando Velasco is rated as the eighth-best center available despite an Achilles' tendon injury.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Steelers hire Munchak

With the Browns apparently set to go in a different - and probably wrong - direction, Mike Munchak was still looking for a job Wednesday night.

He then informed the Steelers that he would accept their offer to be the team's offensive line coach.

It could wind up being the biggest - or at least best - move the team makes this offseason.

A Hall of Fame lineman, Munchak brings immediate credibility to the position. After his retirement as a player in 1993, the spend the next 14 seasons coaching for Jeff Fisher before replacing Fisher as Tennessee's head coach in 2011.

Munchak coached five Pro Bowl offensive linemen in his tenure, Kevin Mawae, Michael Roos, Brad Hopkins, Mark Stepnoski and Bruce Matthews.

He's also had a lot of success teaching the zone blocking schemes the Steelers tried to install in 2013 with little success - a big reason why former coach Jack Bicknell, Jr., was fired at the end of the season.

With a young, improving line, former Super Bowl-winning quarterback and rookie running back looking to improve on  a season in which he had 1,200 total yards, adding a coach with Munchak's skills is a big win for the Steelers.

@ Kirby Wilson will have a second interview for the Ravens' offensive coordinator position on Friday.

It appears that he and Kyle Shanahan are the finalists for that position.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kirby Wilson to Baltimore?

Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who has been with the team since 2007, will interview with the Baltimore Ravens on Wednesday for their vacant offensive coordinator position.

Wilson has been a running backs coach in the NFL for 15 seasons and is ready to take a step up. In fact, many felt if he had not suffered burns in a house fire in the 2012 offseason, it might have been Wilson, not Todd Haley, who would have replaced Bruce Arians as the Steelers offensive coordinator.

The Ravens are looking for their third offensive coordinator in the past three seasons. Jim Cadwell, who replaced Cam Cameron during the 2012 season, was hired as Detroit's new head coach despite the Ravens ranking in the bottom third of the league in nearly every offensive category last season.

@ Troy Polamalu has backed out of the Pro Bowl, citing an injury as the reason.

That's pretty much code for saying he just doesn't want to play in the game.

Cleveland's T.J. Ward replaced Polamalu on the roster.

@ There's been no movement on the Steelers offensive line coaching position.

It could be that Mike Munchak, who interviewed last week, is waiting to see what happens with the Cleveland head coaching position.

The way guys are pulling themselves out of consideration for that position, Munchak might end up getting the job by default.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What the Steelers want

Watching the AFC Championship game today, I couldn't help but think that the Denver offense is exactly what the Steelers want their offense to look like moving forward.

They want the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger's hands quickly, just as Manning did all day.

They want Roethlisberger calling plays at the line of scrimmage, giving him the ability to check out of bad plays and into good ones, just as Manning did.

They want to control the clock with their offense, just as the Broncos did, keeping Tom Brady standing on the sidelines for long periods of time.

Do the Steelers have the ability and players to run that style of offense?

They certainly did in the second half of 2013. While they didn't put up the 40 points per game the Broncos did this season, the Steelers averaged 28.2 points per game over their final nine games.

What they need is another dynamic receiver opposite Antonio Brown to make the offense complete.

In Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, the Broncos have a pair of big, physical receivers capable of creating size mismatches. And Thomas has outstanding speed as well. The Steelers really don't have one of those.

That's why if they get a chance to grab a big, dynamic wide receiver early in this year's draft, the Steelers should do so.

As we saw with Denver, your defense doesn't have to be great to get to the Super Bowl. A dynamic offense can make an average defense look a whole lot better.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Steelers interview Munchak

Mike Munchak became the second person to interview for the Steelers' vacant offensive line coach job on Friday.

Munchak, who was fired at the end of the season after three years as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, met with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on Friday.

The former Penn State star and Pro Football Hall of Fame member was a nine-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman with the Houston Oilers and 10-time All-Pro selection (try to make sense of that).

He joined the Oilers as a coach after his retirement in 1993 and stuck with the team through its move to Tennessee.

The only other candidate to interview for the position, which was vacated when Jack Bicknell Jr. was fired at the conclusion of the regular season, has been assistant offensive line coach Sean Sarrett.

@ The Steelers are considering lowering the prices of their preseason game tickets.

No decision has been made as of yet in regards to that move, but if it happens, you might also expect a slight increase in regular season game ticket prices.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bettis belongs in the Hall of Fame

When you mention Jerome Bettis here in Western Pennsylvania, images of No. 36 ploughing his way through defenders and then getting up off the ground to do his little sideways “Bus” dance while shaking his head come to mind.

Why not? For 10 seasons Bettis was the Steelers.

Bettis has been turned away in three consecutive years as a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in favor of other running backs, Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin and Emmitt Smith.

That’s understandable. Those three running backs are three of the best to ever play the game.
So was Bettis.

But some of the members of the panel of journalists who vote for the hall apparently don’t think so. In fact, just this week, when asked who he thought would make it this year, voter Peter King, who works for Sports Illustrated and NBC, didn’t mention Bettis even among those who he thought were borderline.


The NFL’s sixth all-time leading rusher with 13,662 yards isn’t a no-brainer? A man who is tied for 10th all-time – with Franco Harris – with 91 career rushing touchdowns doesn’t belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

If that’s the case, they shouldn’t even have a Hall of Fame.

Some of the anti-Bettis crowd – for lack of a better term – point to his career yards per rush average of 3.9. 

But they fail to recognize that he spent his final two seasons almost strictly as a short-yardage back and fourth quarter closer, albeit one on some very good teams.

That also fails to recognize that John Riggins, a running back who doesn’t have anywhere close to Bettis’ overall career numbers, is already in the Hall of Fame with a career rushing average of 3.9 yards.

Add to that some of the quarterbacks Bettis took handoffs from – Jim Everett, T.J. Rubley and Chris Miller with the Rams; Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak, Kent Graham and Tommy Maddox with the Steelers – and it’s amazing he ever had a 100-yard game let alone 1,000-yard seasons.

It wasn’t until 2004, when the Steelers brought in Ben Roethlisberger, that Bettis ever played with a quarterback who could match his talent.

All Bettis did in that season, at the age of 32, was rush for 941 yards in just six starts while sharing time with Willie Parker.

And Bettis did his damage playing at 240-plus pounds throughout his career.

In fact, Bettis’ 13,662 yards are twice as many as any other 240-plus-pound running back has gained.
Riggins and Earl Campbell, two “big” backs Bettis is compared to, both played in the 230-pound range. Christian Okoye, another running back who played at 250 pounds, only lasted six seasons in the NFL and had just two 1,000-yard seasons.

The bottom line is this: there are currently 29 running backs from the modern era in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Only five of those players gained more yards rushing than Bettis.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Just when you thought

Just when you thought the Pro Bowl couldn't get any more slappy, Deion Sanders tweeted today that he plans on playing in the game and is hoping to talk Jerry Rice into doing so as well.


The game has already become a joke - even before the league went to its no conference designation this year. Players don't want to go. And they certainly don't want to play in another game.

But obviously somebody thinks - Roger Goodell? - that Sanders playing will help pump up the non-existent ratings or make some of the stars want to play?

I watched Sanders not tackle anyone throughout his NFL career. Why in the hell would I want to watch him again in a game in which tackling in notoriously lacking?

As for getting Rice to play, we saw him hold onto his playing career way too long as it was. Doesn't anyone remember the Oakland years when he couldn't get open against linebackers?

The league should scrap the entire Pro Bowl. Just name the team. Let the players who are named go to Hawaii or some other exotic place and make it like "Battle of the Network Stars."

Let them compete in cornhole or rope climbing or horseshoes for all I care. But don't put them on a football field with absolutely no intention of actually playing, you know, football and tell me I should care about it.

And don't subject me to any more Deion Sanders.

@ The Pro Football Writers of America released their All-Pro and All-AFC and NFC teams today.

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown was the only Pittsburgh player named, earning a spot on the All-AFC roster.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Thoughts on Rooney's statements

Steelers president Art Rooney II said a number of things of interest this week, including the fact that he'd like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to retire as a member of the Steelers.

That wasn't always necessarily the case. When Roethlisberger was accused of rape in Georgia back in 2010,  it was very nearly the end of Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers, of course, decided to hold onto Roethlisberger rather than trade him, and he's been a model citizen since. He got married, quit putting himself in situations where he could be accused of anything and even opened up with the media more so than ever before.

Rooney said the Steelers won't necessarily work on a contract extension this offseason with Roethlisberger, who has two years remaining on his current deal. And while it's true the Steelers might not HAVE to do so, it would benefit Pittsburgh to sign Roethlisberger to an extension.

The Steelers could lower Roethlisberger's 2014 cap hit by as much as $4 million next season even with a deal that pays him in the average range of Joe Flacco's $20 million per season, while also giving the quarterback a hefty signing bonus that would be incentive for him to get a deal done as well.

Rooney also said he was happy with the progress the offense made this season, noting that many of the team's issues were defensive.

That said, he correctly noted the issues with the team's defense.

"We need to be better. There's no denying that," Rooney said. "Whether it's age-related or otherwise, I'm not too concerned about the age, it's just about getting better."

That will be the team's main focus this offseason.

The offense has the potential to lose only two cogs - wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.

It expect the Steelers to make a strong push to sign at least one of those two, with Cotchery being the most likely.

That means retooling the defense with draft picks/free agents will be the offseason priority.

I would expect a change at free safety, where Ryan Clark has roamed since 2006.

Clark was a solid player for a lot of years for this team. But with the change in the NFL rules to take away big hits in the secondary, he's become something of a dinosaur. The free safety in today's NFL doesn't need to be as much of a big hitter as he does someone who can take the football away.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Three former Steelers on Hall's final list of 15

Three men with ties to the Steelers are among the 15 finalists for induction into the NFL Hall of Fame this year.

Running back Jerome Bettis, linebacker Kevin Greene and coach Tony Dungy all made the final cut. They will be among those considered by the voting board during Super Bowl week this year. The inductees will be announced the day before the Super Bowl.

Bettis has been passed over the past few years while some other running backs - Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin and Emmitt Smith - got in.

But Bettis is the lone running back on the final 15 list this year. That bodes well for him.

@ The Miami Dolphins have begun the search for their new general manager to replace Jeff Ireland and have asked permission to speak to Steelers Director of Football and Business Administration Omar Khan.

Khan has been interviewed for general manager positions before, but this might be the best fit for him outside of returning to his native Louisiana.

The Dolphins are trying like crazy to catch up to the Patriots in the AFC East and have some pieces in place.

At some point, he's going to get an offer elsewhere that he can't refuse.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Where the Steelers go from here

The No. 1 priority for the Steelers heading into this offseason is to re-sign linebacker Jason Worilds.

After allowing wide receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis to leave as free agents following the 2012 season because they couldn’t afford to sign them to new deals, the Steelers aren’t about to let another good young talent get away.

The problem is that the Steelers are currently projected to be just under $13 million over the 2014 estimated salary cap, including dead money from players already released and workout bonuses.

The team will also need an additional $5.8 million to sign their draft picks and some additional money for the practice squad, emergencies, etc. By the time all is said and done, they’ll need between $18 and $20 million in cap space.

The first order of business will be clearing the cap space needed to be compliant by March 11, when the new fiscal year begins.

Releasing offensive tackle Levi Brown will account for $6.25 million of that and is an easy fix. Brown never played a down for the Steelers after being acquired via a trade for a conditional pick with Arizona. Since Brown met none of the conditions of the trade, no pick will be exchanged.

Veteran linebacker Larry Foote, who spent most of 2013 on injured reserve, could also be released at a savings of $1.17 million.

So where will the rest of the money come from?

An extension to Roethlisberger could net the team $3 to $4 million in cap savings for 2014 and seems to be a no-brainer. And simple restructures in the deals of Brown and linebacker Lawrence Timmons could create an additional $8 million in cap space.

The team could also approach cornerback Ike Taylor and inquire about the possibility of taking a paycut on the $7 million salary he is scheduled to earn in 2014. But, as happened in 2013 with James Harrison, the team must also be prepared to release Taylor if he isn’t agreeable to taking a cut.

Placing the franchise tag on Worilds would cost $10.9 million and would keep the linebacker from bolting in free agency but might be too high a cost for the Steelers to afford. But they might not have a choice at this point and would have to release another veteran outright to use the tag and hope they can work out a new deal with Worilds to lower that total.

One of the biggest issues facing the Steelers is what to do with outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Woodley has missed time with injuries in each of the past three seasons and is scheduled to make $13.5 million. If the Steelers re-sign Worilds as expected, they will release Woodley.

But they likely won’t be able to make that move until after June 1, at which time they can free up $8 million with the other $5.3 million being carried over to 2015. Releasing Woodley prior to June 1 means the Steelers would take a $14 million hit against their cap in 2014.

But the Steelers will have to carry Woodley’s $13.5 million salary against their cap until his June 1 release.
The Steelers will also need to figure out ways to re-sign some of their own free agents.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will want more than a minimum deal, as will safety Ryan Clark. Neither will likely return.

But the Steelers might be able to work out minimum deals with wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who led the team with 10 touchdown catches, running back Jonathan Dwyer, long snapper Greg Warren, defensive lineman Al Woods and offensive lineman Guy Whimper.

Center Fernando Velasco would have required a decent contract offer given his play throughout the season, but after suffering an Achilles tendon injury late in the year, could be re-signed for a minimum deal prior to training camp. If Velasco gets another offer or the team feels he’s not progressing with his rehab well enough, 

Cody Wallace could be re-signed as well.

With Clark gone, the Steelers will also look to add a veteran at free safety as well. Will Allen could fill that role if he is re-signed, though cornerback William Gay could also be moved to that spot.

Steelers unrestricted free agents (and their chances of re-signing)
S Will Allen (60-40)
WR Plaxico Burress (10-90)
S Ryan Clark (10-90)
WR Jerricho Cotchery (70-30)
RB Jonathan Dwyer (60-40)
DE Ziggy Hood (60-40)
TE David Johnson (50-50)
RB Felix Jones (25-75)
DE Brett Keisel (60-40)
P Mat McBriar (30-70)
OL Eric Olsen (20-80)
TE Michael Palmer (50-50)
WR Emmanuel Sanders (20-80)
RB LaRod Stephens-Howling (50-50)
LB Stevenson Sylvester (50-50)
C Cody Wallace (50-50)
LS Greg Warren (40-60)
LB Jamaal Westerman (30-70)
OL Guy Whimper (60-40)
DT Al Woods (70-30)
LB Jason Worilds (80-20)

OL Fernando Velasco (80-20)

Saturday, January 04, 2014

2013 Steelers: What went wrong

Since I've already touched on what went right for the Steelers in 2013, here's a look at what went wrong in the second part of this series

The Steelers scored 19 points in their first two games, then allowed 74 points in their next two to fall to 0-4.

The team also turned the ball over 11 times in those first four games, with Roethlisberger accounting for nine of those giveaways with fumbles and interceptions.

Pittsburgh went 8-4 after that start, but needed one more victory – or a correct call by the officials on two separate plays in the Kansas City-San Diego game in Week 17 – to get into the playoffs.

The biggest issue was big plays.

The defense allowed an astounding five runs of 40 or more yards and 12 passes of that length or greater. 
The defense was better in the second half, but still had some letdowns, most notably a pair of long runs allowed in a 34-28 loss at Heinz Field to Miami Dec. 8, that helped keep the Steelers out of the playoffs.

Injuries also played a factor. In addition to losing Pouncey in the season opener, the Steelers also lost inside linebacker Larry Foote for the season in that game. All told, the Steelers ended the season with 11 players on injured reserve, including Pouncey’s replacement, Fernando Velasco, and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

The run defense was also not up to its usual stout standards. Pittsburgh allowed 115.6 yards rushing per game and 4.3 yards per carry while opponents scored 18 rushing touchdowns.

The rushing yards per game and average per carry were the teams’ worst since 1999, while the rushing touchdowns allowed were the most since the team gave up 20 during a 5-11 season in 1988.

The rushing offense, as a whole, wasn’t much better. Despite Bell’s surge, Pittsburgh averaged 74 yards rushing per game in the first half of the season and 99 yards per game in the second. The 84.2 yards per game average for the season was Pittsburgh’s worst since the 1970 NFL merger. And its 3.5 yards per carry average was identical in the first half and second half.

It helped cost offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. his job.

There were also some issues in the kicking game, particularly with the punters.

Drew Butler, the team’s punter in 2012, was released just prior to the opening of the regular season and replaced by Zoltan Mesko, a Patriots castoff. Mesko was inconsistent and had just three of his 34 punts downed inside the 20.

He was replaced at midseason by Mat McBriar, who also dealt with some inconsistences. McBriar did, however, place 13 of 40 punts inside the 20.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Breaking down the 2013 Steelers

I'm going to do a little three-part series (OK, not so little) on what went right and wrong with the Steelers in 2013 and where I think the team will go this offseason over the next few days.

I'll start out today with what went right:

Several young players emerged as potential stars of the future, including defensive end Cameron Heyward, linebacker Jason Worilds, guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell.

None of that group played a big role for the Steelers in 2012, but all took turns starring for the team in 2013.

Heyward, a 2011 first-round draft pick, moved into the starting lineup for good after the team’s 0-4 start. 
He finished the season with six sacks, 34 hurries and batted down five passes at the line of scrimmage. Only Houston’s J.J. Watt, with six, had more pass deflections among 3-4 defensive ends.

As good as Heyward was, Worilds might have been better. Despite sharing time with rookie Jarvis Jones for nearly half the season and missing the regular season finale against Cleveland with an abdominal injury, Worilds led all NFL 3-4 outside linebackers with 21 quarterback hits, six more than the next closest player.
Worilds, a 2010 second-round draft pick, led the Steelers with eight sacks, adding 54 tackles and two forced fumbles.

DeCastro drew the ire of fans for accidentally injuring center Maurkice Pouncey’s knee and ending his season on Pittsburgh’s opening drive of the regular season opener. But the 2012 first round draft pick rebounded to become the team’s best run blocker. He only allowed two sacks all season and also had just two penalties.

DeCastro was part of a line that got better as the season wore on. Like DeCastro, left guard Ramon Foster allowed just two sacks and had two penalties all season, while Kelvin Beachum replaced Mike Adams at left tackle after the team fell to 0-4 and solidified that position.

As a group, the line allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked just seven times in the final seven games.

Bell was also part of that. The rookie missed the first three games of the regular season after suffering a foot injury in the team’s second preseason game. The 2013 second-round draft pick got off to a slow start, gaining just 282 yards rushing in his first five games. But he gained 578 yards rushing in the team’s final eight games.

Bell also had 45 receptions – just six behind John L. Williams’ team-record for a running back – for 399 yards, giving him 1,259 yards from scrimmage, a total that broke Franco Harris’ record for a rookie running back set in 1972.

In addition to their breakout stars, the Steelers got their usual solid seasons from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown – who won his second team MVP award in three seasons – and safety Troy Polamalu.

After the line play settled down without Pouncey, offensive coordinator Todd Haley began allowing Roethlisberger to run the offense more out of a no-huddle look – something the quarterback had long pushed for.

Roethlisberger responded by throwing for 4,261 yards and 28 touchdowns, both of which rank as the second-best totals in team history, and the Steelers scored 20 or more points in their final nine games, their longest such streak since 2002. Roethlisberger also played every snap in every game for the first time in his 10-year career.

Brown earned his second Pro Bowl berth setting a team record with 1,499 yards receiving and finishing with 110 receptions – the second most in team history – and a career-high eight touchdowns. He ranked second the NFL in receptions and receiving yardage and third in the league in punt return average.

Polamalu, meanwhile, led all NFL defensive backs with five forced fumbles and also had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown while playing in all 16 games.